New York Lawmakers Introduce Sweeping Reforms to Use of Solitary Confinement in Prisons and Jails

Reblogged from: Think Outside the Box

Press release from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.
January 31, 10:30 am
New York — At a mid-morning press conference at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, New York legislators will join advocates, survivors of solitary confinement, and their families to announce the introduction of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (A08588 / S06466).
Introduced in both the Assembly and the Senate, the pioneering bill is being hailed by supporters as the most comprehensive and progressive legislative response to date to the nationwide problem of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. As written, it would virtually eliminate a practice that has been increasingly denounced as both dangerous and torturous, while protecting the safety of incarcerated individuals and corrections officers.
According to Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly, “New York State was a leader for the country in passing the 2008 SHU Exclusion Law, which keeps people with the most severe mental health needs out of solitary confinement. Now we must show the way forward again, ensuring that we provide safe, humane and effective alternatives to solitary for all people.”
“Solitary confinement makes people suffer without making our prisons safer. It is counter-productive as well as cruel,” said Senator Bill Perkins, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “Solitary harms not only those who endure it, but families, communities, and corrections staff as well.”
Currently, about 3,800 people are in Special Housing Units, or SHUs, with many more in other forms of isolated confinement in New York’s State prisons on any given day, held for 23 to 24 hours a day in cells smaller than the average parking space, alone or with one other person. More than 800 are in solitary confinement in New York City jails, along with hundreds more in local jails across the state.
New York isolates imprisoned people at levels well above the national average, and uses solitary to punish minor disciplinary violations. Five out of six sentences that result in placement in New York State’s SHUs are for non-violent conduct. Individuals are sent to the SHU on the word of prison staff, and may remain there for months, years, or even decades.
The HALT Solitary Confinement Act bans extreme isolation beyond 15 days–the limit advocated by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez, among others. It also bars vulnerable populations from being placed in solitary at all–including youth, the elderly, pregnant women, LGBTI individuals, and those with physical or mental disabilities.
“No person should be put in solitary confinement except when they are a risk to  someone else,” said New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm. “As a major opponent of the practice, I have introduced three pieces of legislation into the City Council. I applaud the proposed state legislation that sets parameters on who can and who cannot be placed in solitary confinement and limits the amount of time they are forced to stay there.”
For those who present a serious threat to prison safety and need to be separated from the general population for longer periods of time, the legislation creates new Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRUs)–high-security units with substantial out-of-cell time, and programs aimed at addressing the underlying causes of behavioral problems.
“Isolation does not promote positive change in people; it only damages them,” said Jennifer J. Parish of the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. “By requiring treatment and programs for people who are separated from the prison population for serious misconduct, the legislation requires Corrections to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment and degradation.”
“The HALT Solitary Confinement Act recognizes that we need a fundamental transformation of how our public institutions address people’s needs and behaviors, both in our prisons and in our communities,” said Scott Paltrowitz of the Correctional Association of New York. “Rather than inhumane and ineffective punishment, deprivation, and isolation, HALT would provide people with greater support, programs, and treatment to help them thrive, and in turn make our prisons and our communities safer.”
Many of those represented at the press conference are members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which was instrumental in drafting the bill. CAIC unites advocates, concerned community members, lawyers, and individuals in the human rights, health, and faith communities throughout New York State with formerly incarcerated people and family members of currently incarcerated people.
“Solitary is torture on both sides of the prison walls,” said family member Donna Sorge-Ruiz, whose fiancé is currently in solitary. “Loved ones on the outside suffer right along with those in prison, every day that they endure this pain. It must stop!”
The widespread use of long-term solitary confinement has been under fire in recent years, in the face of increasing evidence that sensory deprivation, lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to severe psychological damage. Supporters of the bill also say that isolated confinement fails to address the underlying causes of problematic behavior, and often exacerbates that behavior as people deteriorate psychologically, physically, and socially.
In New York each year, nearly 2,000 people are released directly from extreme isolation to the streets, a practice that has been shown to increase recidivism rates.
“The damage done by solitary confinement is deep and permanent,” said solitary survivor Five Mualimm-ak. An activist with CAIC and the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Mualimm-ak spent five years in isolated confinement despite never having committed a violent act in prison. “Having humane alternatives will spare thousands of people the pain and suffering that extreme isolation causes–and the scars that they carry with them back into our communities.”
Several state prisons systems, including Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, have significantly reduced the number of people they hold in solitary confinement, and have seen prison violence decrease as well. HALT takes reform a step further by also providing alternatives for the relatively small number of individuals who need to be separated from the general population for more than a few weeks. Advocates see the bill not only as a major step toward humane and evidence-based prison policies, but also as a model for change across the country.
“Article 5 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, states that ‘No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,’” said Laura Markle Downton of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. “As people of faith, we recognize the use of solitary confinement in a prisons, jails and detention centers fundamentally violates this prohibition against torture. Now is the time for New York to lead the way in bringing an end to this human rights abuse plaguing our justice system nationally.”
“The HALT Solitary Confinement Act implements rational humane alternatives to the costly, ineffective, and abusive use of long-term solitary confinement in New York prisons and jails,” saidSarah Kerr of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project. “The need for reform is well-documented and the time for change is now.”
PRESS CONFERENCE DETAILS:
Date/Time/ Location: Friday, January 31, 10:30 am
Judson Memorial Church, Meeting Room Balcony
55 Washington Square South (between Thompson and Sullivan Streets)
Speakers:
Assembly Member Jeffrion L. Aubry (D, 35th District, Queens), Assembly sponsor
Senator Bill Perkins (D, 30th District, Harlem), Senate sponsor
City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D, 25th District, Queens)
Five Mualimm-ak, survivor of solitary confinement in New York prisons and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement
Jessica Casanova, aunt of individual currently in solitary and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement
Scott Paltrowitz, Correctional Association of New York and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement
Claire Deroche, National Religious Campaign Against Torture and Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement
PRESS KIT INCLUDES:
Press Release
Fact Sheet on Solitary Confinement in New York State
Summary of the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act
Full Text of HALT Act (A08588 / S06466)
New York Voices from Solitary Confinement
“Solitary Confinement’s Invisible Scars,” op-ed by Five Mualimm-ak
FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Scott Paltrowitz, 212-254-5700, spaltrowitz@correctionalassociation.org
Sarah Kerr, 212-577-3530, SKerr@legal-aid.org
Five Mualimm-ak, 646-294-8331, endthenewjimcrow@gmail.com
#  #  #

AFSC Releases “Survivors Manual” By and For Prisoners in Solitary Confinemen

From: SolitaryWatch, July 31st, 2012
by Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

The American Friends Service Committee has put out a new edition of the vital publication Survivors Manual: Surviving in Solitary — A Manual Written By and For People Living in Control Units. The volume is a collection of letters, stories, poetry, and practical advice on surviving solitary confinement in prisons. AFSC released the following announcement last week:

Solitary confinement, characterized by 23-hour a day lockout with minimal exercise and lack of human contact, affects an estimated 100,000 prisoners in federal and state prisons in almost every state. Thus the need for “Survivors Manual,” which was first issued in 1998, is even more vital.

In this powerful collection of voices from solitary, people currently or formerly held in isolation vividly describe their conditions and their daily lives. They also write about how they struggle to keep mind, body, and soul together in an environment that is designed to break them down. Many also analyze the political, economic, and social forces that shape their torturous situation. The collection also includes some stunning artwork and poetry.

A PDF of the manual is available online at the following link:

http://www.afsc.org/document/survivors-manual-surviving-solitary

Copies can also be purchased for $3 each at the following site:

http://www.quakerbooks.org/survivors_manual.php

Pelican Bay is not Enough!! Continuing the Struggle Against Extreme Isolation and Sensory Deprivation

By Victoria Law
November 16, 2011

http://criticalmassprogress.com/2011/11/16/ci-pelican-bay-is-not-enough-continuing-the-struggle-against-extreme-isolation-and-sensory-deprivation/

Last month, prisoners across California ended a nearly three-week hunger strike. The strikers, who numbered 12,000 at the strike’s peak, had five core demands:

1) Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
2) Abolish the debriefing policy and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
3) Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long term solitary confinement;
4) Provide adequate food;
5) Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.

The strike, the second three-week hunger strike to rock California’s prison system this year alone, was called by men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) of California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The SHU is explicitly designed to keep prisoners in long-term solitary confinement under conditions of extreme sensory deprivation. Men are locked into their cells for at least 22 hours a day. Food is delivered twice a day through a slot in the cell door.

Prison administrators place men in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or for an indeterminate term because they were “validated” as prison gang members. Prisoners who have been “validated” as gang members are released from the SHU into the general prison population only if they “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. Debriefing can be dangerous to both the prisoner who debriefs and his family on the outside. In addition, prisoners are often falsely identified as gang members by others who debrief in order to escape the SHU. One does not necessarily need to be a gang member to be sent to the SHU: jailhouse lawyers and others who challenge inhumane prison conditions are disproportionately sent to the SHU.

Nearly three weeks after the strike began, the CDCR promised both the hunger strikers and members of the outside mediation team to review every single SHU placement under new criteria. In response, the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay ended their strike on October 13th. Two days later, hunger strikers at Calipatria State Prison halted their strike, stating that they were enabling prisoners to regain their strength.

But the struggle over the SHU is only the beginning.

Laura Magnani is the regional director of the American Friends Service Committee and served as a mediator during negotiations between the hunger strikers and the CDCR. She points out that, in 2008, 14,500 people in California’s state prisons were held in some form of solitary confinement. Of those, only 3,500 were in Security Housing Units. The remaining 11,000 are held in other forms of isolation, such as Administrative Segregation. The promised changes to SHU policy will do little to ameliorate their own torture. Once the changes have been drafted, reviewed and approved, she said, advocates and supporters need to work to expand these new policies to non-SHU isolation units. (1)

Conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation are not unique to California. Over the last 25 to 30 years, the use of extended solitary confinement has become more routine in U.S. prisons.

In 1986, the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky, opened a control unit specifically for women political prisoners in 1986. It was built underground and entirely white. Women were prohibited from hanging anything on the white walls, causing them to begin hallucinating black spots and strings on the walls and floors. Their sole contact with prison staff came in the form of voices addressing them over loudspeakers. The unit was shut down in 1988 after an outside campaign and a court decision that determined their placement unconstitutional. The practice of solitary confinement continues today, however, with jailhouse lawyers and other incarcerated activists often targeted. (2)

Today, there are 20,000 people held in supermax prisons, institutions designed to permanently isolate each prisoner for the duration of his or her sentence. Supermax prisoners are confined to small cells 24 hours a day. Many of the cells have no windows and are soundproof. Visits, phone calls and mail from family and friends are severely restricted; reading material is censored. Exercise is a solitary pursuit in a small cage in a yard.(3)

Approximately 80,000 people are in some form of solitary confinement across the United States. (http://www.alternet.org/rights/146497/torture_at_home_documentary_on_solitary_confinement_in_us_prisons_misses_the_mark?page=entire)

In 1996, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, which manages the federal prison system, created the Special Administrative Measures (SAMS). Under SAMS, a prisoner is held in 23 to 24 hour solitary confinement. All of his mail is monitored and censored. He is only allowed contact with immediate family members. Under SAMS, they are not allowed to reveal their loved one’s condition or the conditions of his confinement. SAMs, which are considered “administrative,” not punitive, can be imposed on a prisoner who had been classified as violent for a maximum of four months. After September 11th, the time limit was expanded. The Attorney General can now place a person under SAMS for an entire year. When that year is over, he can renew the prisoner’s SAMS status. Prisoners can be and have been placed under SAMs during their pre-trial detention. Fahad Hashmi, a U.S. citizen accused of providing material support to terrorists, spent three years under SAMs before he even went to trial. At his sentencing, his speech was rapid. When asked to slow down, he apologized, noting that, because of his three years under SAMS, he has not had many occasions to talk to other people.(4)

The impact of extreme solitary confinement is not limited to Fahad Hashmi. Damion Echols was exonerated after spending 18 years in solitary confinement. During those 18 years, he had only walked in full restraints. Upon his release, he had to relearn how to walk. He also had to relearn how to see past a few feet; after 18 years, his eyes had become unused to seeing past the few feet inside his cell.(5)

Even a few weeks in solitary confinement can have drastic repercussions. Sarah Pender, held in solitary confinement in Indiana for three years, recently wrote about another woman on the solitary housing unit: “Just yesterday [she] was writing on the walls with her own blood. Before she cut her arms, she strangled herself with a shoestring until the guards found her purple. Before that, she used her fingernails to rip chunks of flesh out of her face. She had been held here for two months after essentially sassing a guard.” (6)

People in the U.S. are increasingly recognizing the use of solitary as a means of legalized torture. In 1988, continued public pressure and advocacy led to the shutting down of the control unit at FCI Lexington. Today, activists, advocates, family members and community members are fighting to draw attention to these atrocities and publicly pressure authorities to either release individual prisoners into general population or to drastically change procedures around solitary confinement.

The ACLU and Indiana Protection Services Agency filed a class-action lawsuit against the Indiana Department of Corrections on behalf of all prisoners held in solitary housing units that suffered from mental illness. The Federal District Court for Southern Indiana heard the case over the summer and is expected to make a decision at the end of this year.(7) Pender, who notes that her three-year stay in isolation is “one of the longest periods a woman has ever been held in isolation for a single, non-violent act in Indiana history,” filed a civil suit in April 2011 against specific prison officials raising similar claims regarding SHU conditions, lack of appropriate mental health care, and the mental health effects of solitary confinement.

Other tactics have also been used to raise awareness and outrage around solitary confinement: In October 2009, Theaters Against the War, Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative, along with individuals concerned about the human rights atrocities inflicted upon Fahad Hashmi by the SAMS, began holding weekly vigils outside the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York. For seven months, these vigils continued with opera singers, theater artists, human rights and social justice activists supporting Hashmi’s friends, family and immediate community. As Hashmi’s trial neared, a call went out to fill the courtroom with supporters. The government responded by first asking for anonymity and extra security for the jury, thus implying that the jurors had reason to fear Hashmi’s supporters. It then dropped three of its charges, offering a 10 to 15 year sentence instead of a potential 70 year sentence if Hashmi pled guilty to the last remaining count of material support. The number of friends and supporters filled not only the courtroom but three overflow courtrooms on the day of Hashmi’s sentencing.(8)

During the hunger strike started at Pelican Bay, family members, advocates, and concerned community members across the country acted to draw attention to the hunger strike. In Oakland, supporters held a weekly vigil on Thursday evenings. On July 9, 2011, supporters organized demonstrations in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Nine days later, 200 family members, lawyers, and outside supporters from across California converged upon CDCR headquarters in Sacramento, delivered a petition of over 7,500 signatures in support of the hunger strikers, and then marched to Governor Brown’s office to demand answers. That same day, supporters in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York City, and Philadelphia also held solidarity rallies.

Compelled by the hunger strike, its ensuing publicity, and community pressure on legislators, the California Assembly’s Public Safety Commission held a hearing on SHU conditions on August 23. Former SHU prisoners, family members, attorneys, advocates, and psychiatrists testified about the need for substantial changes to SHU policies and practices. When the hunger strike resumed again in September, so too did the actions to keep the strike—and the conditions prompting it—in public consciousness.

On October 13, 2011, the day that the hunger strike ended at Pelican Bay, students, attorneys, civil rights activists, and family members convened at Brooklyn College for a one-day conference that connected the human rights atrocities in the federal prison system with the struggles of the prison justice movement. Attendees learned from each other’s struggles and experiences and built bridges between movements that often work separately.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, 60 people braved the November rain to rally outside the NC Division of Prisons. The protest was co-organized by anti-prison activists and members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, a group whose imprisoned members have been harassed and segregated within the NC prison system. Outraged by this harassment, the continued targeting of politically-active North Carolina prisoners, and the recent hunger strike in California, the rally focused on solitary confinement with banners stating, “Against Solitary—Love for All Prison Rebels,” “Solitary is Torture” and “Against Prisons.”

Protesters marched form the Division of Prisons to the rear of the men’s Central Prison. Although police prevented the march from reaching the prison fence, the prisoners could see the protest from the windows and, in response, banged on the glass.

Concerns about solitary confinement are not limited to activists, advocates and family members. The European Convention on Human Rights holds that the extreme isolation in ADX Florence amounts to torture, stating that “complete sensory isolation, coupled with total social isolation, can destroy the personality and constitutes a form of inhuman treatment which cannot be justified by the requirements of security or any other reason.” On October 18, 2011, Juan Mendez, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, presented a written report on solitary confinement in the U.S. to the UN General Assembly’s Human Rights Committee. He stated that solitary confinement “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pretrial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities or juveniles. Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, supermax, the hole, secure housing unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by states as a punishment or extortion (of information) technique.” He called for a ban on any type of solitary confinement exceeding 15 days.

What does all this mean for the 80,000 people isolated in extreme solitary confinement right now?
“It’s nearing the end of 2011,” wrote Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay. “How is it that thousands of prisoners in SHU-type units across the country are being subject to conditions the International Courts have condemned as torture?” (10)

On the day that the Pelican Bay hunger strike ended, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights exhorted the audience at Brooklyn College: “We need to build on the momentum of Pelican Bay, Bradley Manning and other cases.” (11)

Let us take these words—and the organizing of those both in and out of prison—as a call to action.

End Notes

(1) Laura Magnani, telephone interview with author, October 14, 2011.
(2) Cassandra Shaylor, “ ‘It’s Like Living in a Black Hole’: Women of Color and Solitary Confinement in the Prison-Industrial Complex” in Feminist Legal Theory: An Anti-Essentialist Reader, ed. Nancy E. Dowd and Michelle S. Jacobs (New York: NYU Press, 2003), 320. The court determined the women’s placement unconstitutional since they were housed in the control unit because of their political beliefs. It did NOT rule that control units constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The U.S. Court of Appeals then ruled that prisons are free to use political associations and beliefs to justify different and harsher treatment.
(3) Rachael Kamel and Bonnie Kerness, The Prison Inside the Prison: Control Units, Supermax Prisons, and Devices of Torture: A Justice Visions Briefing Paper. Philadelphia, PA: American Friends Service Committee, 2003. 2.
(4) Fahad Hashmi allowed a visiting acquaintance to store waterproof socks, ponchos and raincoats in his London apartment. Prosecutors argued that these socks, ponchos and raincoats later ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda. Hashmi was sentenced to 15 years in ADX Florence. His SAMS status remains.
(5)David Fathi, Roundtable: Conditions of Confinement, The Civil Rights Crisis in the Federal System Post 9/11, Brooklyn College, October 13, 2011.
(6)Sarah Jo Pender, “The Annals of Solitary Confinement,” Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison 24, Fall/Winter 2011.
(7) Pender, “The Annals of Solitary Confinement.”http://chronicle.com/article/My-Student-the-Terrorist/126937/
(8) Fahad Hashmi was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College. Only weeks before the conference, it was revealed that the NYPD had been monitoring Muslim students and student groups at Brooklyn College.
(9) Letter from Todd Ashker to author, dated September 25, 2011.
(10) Pardiss Kebriaei, Roundtable: Conditions of Confinement. The Civil Rights Crisis in the Federal System Post 9/11, Brooklyn College, October 13, 2011. For more about Bradley Manning’s case, see http://www.bradleymanning.org

Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. She is the author of “Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women” (PM Press 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and a co-founder of Books Through Bars – NYC. She is currently working on transforming “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” a zine series on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a book.

Kantar: The Ballad of Alvaro Luna Hernandez

Excellent guest post today from Max Kantar (originally published at Counterpunch): Max is a Michigan-based independent writer and the Midwest representative for the Committee to Free Alvaro Luna Hernandez. For more information on Alvaro’s case, visit www.freealvaro.net. Max can be reached at maxkantar@gmail.com.



——————–

May 16, 2011

Without Fear

The Ballad of Alvaro Luna Hernandez

By MAX B. KANTAR

“I will never surrender my pride and dignity nor allow the system to ‘cut my tongue’ and I will always, without fear, speak out against these war crimes and crimes against humanity, no matter if I spend the rest of my life in a prison cage, and draw my last breath of air laying down in this steel bed surrounded by razor-wire fences and cages, and its prison policies that are designed to destroy one’s humanity….”

—Alvaro Luna Hernandez, October 18, 2010, Hughes Unit Prison, Gatesville, Texas.


Locked in solitary confinement in a tiny cage inside one of the most notorious control units in the Texas state prison system, Alvaro Luna Hernandez is immersed in a stack of old law texts, his eyes glancing back and forth between court transcripts and a thick legal book every few moments. The streaks of gray in his full, and otherwise dark, beard betray his age in spite of his healthy, powerful frame as he reaches towards the ledge of the sink for a lone Styrofoam cup to take a sip of the stale, lukewarm commissary-bought coffee he drinks every morning, when he can afford it.

Just fifteen months shy of 60 years old, Alvaro has a remarkable amount of energy and routinely gets more work done before noon than most attorneys do in an entire day. Today he’s putting together the documents to get a new trial on a writ of habeas corpus proceeding for another prisoner who is both indigent and illiterate and feels he has been wrongly imprisoned. After that, it’s on to the cases of two other inmates Alvaro is helping out who are each facing several decades behind bars if their appeals fall through before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin. Other prisoners know to go to Alvaro for legal help; he has a well-known reputation throughout the state—indeed nationwide, as highlighted in the recent book Jailhouse Lawyers (City Lights: 2009) by Mumia Abu-Jamal—as a tenacious and effective “jailhouse lawyer” who has filed and won no small number of civil rights suits over the past four decades.

* * *

Alvaro Luna Hernandez is a political prisoner of the State of Texas and the U.S. government. He is nearly 15 years into a 50 year prison sentence for an “aggravated assault” conviction stemming from a July 1996 incident in which he disarmed a Brewster County Sheriff attempting to shoot him. Alvaro vehemently denies the charge that he assaulted the Sheriff. To Mexican-Americans in the cities, slums, plains, deserts, and prison cages of the Southwest, he is a civil rights hero, a Chicano freedom fighter true to his barrio roots and eternally fearless in the face of injustice. For years, he has been internationally recognized by amnesty movements and human rights lawyers and experts as a U.S. political prisoner, yet inside the United States, the name Alvaro Luna Hernandez remains largely elusive on the lips of progressives and social justice advocates.

* * *

A high-school dropout with no formal education, Alvaro hasn’t always been such a capable, and indeed, brilliant, litigator. It was during the late 1970s that he transformed himself from a rebellious, zoot suit-wearing “pachuco” hustler in his youth into a prominent leader in the struggle for racial justice and human rights in the Southwest United States. While serving hard time for a crime he didn’t commit, Alvaro educated himself about Chicano history, the prison system, and revolutionary political theory. He founded and headed up prisoners’ study groups designed to rehabilitate and politicize other inmates.

With Alvaro in the lead, a powerful prison reform movement swept across Texas’ criminal justice system and through the state’s federal courthouses in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Alvaro diligently studied the law and used his newly found skills to file an impressive array of constitutional and civil rights lawsuits against Texas police, judges, and prison officials. He and other prisoners utilized hunger strikes, work stoppages, yard takeovers, and federal civil rights lawsuits in a concerted effort to compel the brutal Texas prison machine to respect the human rights of its exploding prison population, made up almost entirely of poor men of color. Along with a handful of other prisoner-plaintiffs, Alvaro won a landmark federal civil rights lawsuit against the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) after a trial that lasted 159 days in 1978 and ’79 (Ruiz v. Estelle). The court ruled, in a scathing denunciation of the widespread abuse of inmates by the prison system, that the practices of the TDC constituted “cruel and unusual punishment,” and ordered a number of substantial reforms.

“Unfortunately,” Alvaro says, “most of these ‘reforms’ were merely cosmetic….Despite these ‘prisoner victories’ in reforming the system, the federal-nation-state will only go so far because in Texas, the super profits of the state policy of mass incarceration has replaced oil, cotton, and cattle [as the biggest industry in the state].”

Alvaro’s principled work to rehabilitate prisoners and enforce human rights standards in Texas prisons earned him the disdain and contempt of prison officials who locked him in administrative segregation, forcing Alvaro to spend almost the entire decade of the 1980s in solitary confinement as part of a campaign of repression aimed at political prisoners and jailhouse lawyers who threatened to expose abuses in U.S. prisons—including torture, killings, and beatings at the hands, or directions, of prison guards and administrators—and unite inmates under a banner of revolutionary change.

* * *

In March 1991, one year after he was moved out of solitary and back into the general prison population, Alvaro was freed from prison, having served over 15 years, after an investigative journalist for the Houston Post, Paul Harasim, uncovered a gross pattern of systematic prosecutorial misconduct and abuse (which included paying off the lead witness and suppressing physical evidence) in the murder case in which Alvaro was wrongfully convicted, narrowly escaping the electric chair. Certainly no bleeding heart liberal, Harasim nonetheless told readers that “What I learned about the prosecutorial behavior in the trial of Alvaro Hernandez in West Texas made my stomach turn….I wonder if I can support state sanctioned executions any longer.”

Settling in Houston with his wife following his release, Alvaro wasted no time throwing himself into community organizing and political activism. He founded, and became National Executive Director of, the National Movement of La Raza, a civil and human rights group dedicated to empowering Mexican-Americans and struggling for social justice. Alvaro also helped organize and form committees to support the families of prisoners and bring about “truces” between Chicano street gangs in Pasadena, Texas following a number of tragic shootings. Spearheading the campaign to stop the execution of Mexican national, Ricardo Aldape Guerra, Alvaro founded and headed up Guerra’s defense committee. Following years of tireless campaigning and legal battles, his frame-up conviction for killing a Houston cop in 1982 was overturned and Guerra was freed from Texas’ Death Row in 1997.

Alvaro’s impassioned and successful activism in the Houston area earned him international recognition. In the spring of 1993, serving as a delegate for an NGO, Alvaro addressed the United Nations General Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, criticizing the U.S. government for its record of human rights abuses of political prisoners and Mexicans in the Southwest. Alvaro’s delegation was headed by Rigoberta Menchu of Guatemala who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her courageous human rights activism during the U.S.-backed genocide against Mayan peasants in Guatemala during the 1980s. Upon returning from Europe, Alvaro was invited to speak on national television in connection with the Ricardo Aldape Guerra defense case and began hosting Houston-area radio talk shows to spread a message of racial equality and Chicano empowerment. In the following years, Alvaro worked to inspire and educate young people across the United States, speaking not only at universities and conferences, but also at elementary and high schools, lecturing on an array of social and political issues ranging from human rights and grassroots activism, to American history, the criminal justice system, and the death penalty.

* * *

Following his divorce in August 1995, Alvaro moved back to his hometown of Alpine, Texas, located just 80 miles from the Mexican border. In spite of the fact that Alvaro had virtually zero interactions or confrontations with police in the five and a half years that he lived in Houston, almost immediately the local police forces in Alpine were all over him—arbitrary searches day and night, K-9 drug dogs, and frequent “traffic violation” vehicle stops resulting in no citations.

The police hatred of Alvaro in West Texas, especially in Alpine, is fierce, both personal and political, and decades old. Alvaro has always refused to submit to police authority and abuse; sort of like a rebellious slave in the spirit of Fredrick Douglas, but more like a modern-day Gregorio Cortez. When he was 17 he smashed up some police squad cars as well as the personal vehicle of a racist Sheriff following a police confrontation, a stunt which landed him three years in prison. Years later, in 1976 following an escape from county jail—at which he was awaiting transfer to state prison for the wrongful murder conviction—and subsequent shootout with law enforcement, Alvaro was taken to a windowless “conference room” in the jail where he was beaten within an inch of his life by several on-duty police officers. The cops took turns beating and stomping their handcuffed captive, causing him to lose consciousness, his face, eyes, and lips swollen and bloodied beyond recognition, his scalp ripped open with blood pouring from his head onto the cold concrete floor. Once the police were finished, they dragged a bloodied and unconscious Alvaro across the jail and threw him in a cell, leaving him for dead. The near fatal beating meted out to Alvaro resulted in federal criminal civil rights indictments of Pecos County Chief Deputy Sheriff Mike Hill and Deputy Sheriff Bill Mabe, culminating in misdemeanor convictions and probation for the officers. For his part, Alvaro was awarded substantial monetary compensation for damages following a civil suit. The convictions of the officers, however mild, ultimately destroyed their careers as policemen, thus earning Alvaro a special animosity in local law enforcement circles for daring to fight back against police on their own terms, both in the streets and in the courts.

Alvaro’s persistent defiance against oppression has always stemmed from a deep-rooted thirst for the freedom so cruelly denied to him and millions of other Chicanos in the Southwest United States since the colonization and annexation of the Mexican territories north of the Rio Grande following what is commonly known as the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848). In a very real sense, the rural West Texas community of Alpine is like a microcosm of race-relations in the region. Like all of Alpine’s Chicano residents, Alvaro grew up on the south side of the Southern Pacific railroad tracks which served as the de facto racial dividing line between Mexican-Americans and whites. Much like the Jim Crow South at the time, the parallel social universe of rural West Texas manifested harsh economic and political means of control to ensure the subordinate position of Mexicans in an Anglo-dominated society. The town’s Mexican population was largely impoverished, locked into a near-permanent state of economic subservience to white business interests while the gross disparity in social services and infrastructure served as a very visible reminder of the prevailing racial hierarchy, not only in Alpine, but in the American Southwest in general.

The Alpine police and the Brewster County Sheriff’s office were, of course, all white and patrolled the Chicano barrio south of the tracks daily and nightly with a brutality usually reserved only for the town’s “meskins.”

“People were scared of them,” Alvaro writes in a letter from his prison cell, recalling how as a young boy he would go looking for his father or grandfather in the local bars, the Sheriff would often barge in, gun on his hip, to intimidate, arrest, and humiliate Chicano men and elders simply as a means of letting them know “who was boss.”

Whether at the pool hall or walking the streets, Chicano youth were routinely singled out for arbitrary beatings and harassment by the cops. Alvaro was a tough kid, a self-proclaimed “vato loco” and product of the “pachuco” subculture. He was often getting into trouble for drinking beer or fighting, and had many violent confrontations with police as a teenager. Once at a high school football game some policemen were trying to arrest another Mexican kid and started beating the young man; Alvaro intervened to stop the assault and the cops turned their attention, and rage, to him, beating and pistol whipping young Alvaro as a hostile crowd gathered around, throwing garbage at the officers. The police busted open his skull, requiring several stitches, but not before taking him to jail, charging Alvaro with “assault on a peace officer.” Alvaro’s run-ins with the police landed him, at the age of 15, in a juvenile prison run by the Texas Youth Council (TYC) for a year. The juvenile detention centers in Texas had reputations for being extremely brutal and abusive—so much so that the Texas Youth Council was ultimately shut down by federal courts in 1983 following over a decade of lawsuits.

* * *

Just months after getting released from the custody of the TYC, something happened that would change Alvaro’s life forever. It was June 12, 1968. Alvaro was hanging out with his best friend, Ervay Ramos. The two buddies were cruising around Alpine in Ervay’s brother’s car when red police lights started flashing in the rear view mirror. Ervay was, like Alvaro, 16 years old, but didn’t have a valid driver’s license. He sped off and the police car gave chase. Fishtailing through a back alley with the wail of the siren growing louder in the distance, Ervay quickly stopped and told Alvaro to jump out of the car. He drove off and struck a nearby fence next to the football practice fields and landed in a ditch. With the cop car getting closer, Ramos jumped out of the car and ran down the alleyway hoping to escape. Alvaro was just feet away and saw with his own eyes what transpired next.

“The police car, driven by Bud Powers, a well-known cop with a reputation in the barrio for being racist and brutal, pulled up and stopped [behind] the Ramos car,” Alvaro vividly recalls. “[Powers] stepped outside, pulled his revolver and shot the fleeing Ramos in the back with his .357 magnum pistol killing him instantly.”

The murder of Ervay Ramos was one of a number of similar killings of Chicano youth by police in the Southwest at the time. Officer Bud Powers received a proverbial slap on the wrist—five years’ probation—and never served a day in jail. The killing of Ervay Ramos was cited by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in their 1970 report to the President entitled “Mexican Americans and the Administration of Justice in the Southwest” as one of several examples of what the Commission referred to as a pattern of “serious police brutality” and “widespread discrimination” suffered by Mexican-Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers and the U.S. judicial system in the Southwest United States.

* * *

So when Alvaro moved back to Alpine in 1995 with political struggle and courtroom justice for his slain childhood friend on his mind, he was met with considerable police opposition. He was working as a freelance paralegal for attorneys throughout the state when Alpine community members began approaching him for help regarding police brutality and other injustices in town. They had seen Alvaro on television when he was in Houston, working against the death penalty and police oppression. They knew about his impressive record of civil rights activism and how he had litigated a number of successful federal and state civil rights lawsuits against Texas police, judges, and prison officials. Moreover, citizens sought out Alvaro for help because, in addition to being a prominent public critic of racial and social inequalities in Alpine, it was well known—both by the general public, as well as by law enforcement—that he was working on re-opening the 1968 Ervay Ramos murder case with the intention of bringing his killer, policeman Bud Powers, into federal court on murder charges.

The response of the Alpine police to all of this was to organize and carry out a sophisticated campaign, in the spirit of the F.B.I.’s “counter intelligence program” (COINTELPRO) of the 1960s and ’70s, of surveillance, harassment, and repression against Alvaro. They hired a local heroin addict, Mary Valencia, to work as a police informant, ransacking his legal files and personal belongings while working as a maid at the motel he was staying at. Police followed him around, subjecting him to unjustified searches and harassment.

Worse yet, the police convinced the father-in-law of an Alpine Police Sergeant—a man who was known around Alpine as a local town drunk—to falsely accuse Alvaro of armed robbery—a ridiculous frame-up charge which Alvaro ultimately ended up getting dismissed in court while acting as his own attorney. In the meantime, however, Alvaro bonded out of jail by selling his car to the bail bondsman, but just weeks later the bondsman “withdrew” from the bond, unbeknownst to Alvaro at the time.

* * *

On July 18, 1996 Sheriff Jack McDaniel showed up on Alvaro’s doorstep looking to re-arrest him. Brewster County’s new sheriff was far from an anonymous cop just “doing his job.” McDaniel had been cited in a victorious civil rights lawsuit filed by Alvaro against then-Sheriff Jim Skinner a few years back. Moreover, it was no secret around town that Alvaro was investigating Sheriff McDaniel for corruption and embezzlement of funds from the county treasury—funds that Alvaro alleged were being used at McDaniel’s private ranch in West Alpine. Coupled with his work on re-opening the Ramos case and his long history of resistance to local police power, Alvaro argues that the prerogative of the cops was clear: “The police all knew what I was up to and they were determined to stop me at all costs.”

When questioned on the legality of the arrest—for which no warrant was presented—an enraged McDaniel pulled his gun on Alvaro. Fearing quite literally for his life, Alvaro disarmed the Sheriff in self-defense before he could shoot, told McDaniel to leave, and then fled the scene. Nobody was injured. For three days Alvaro was able to evade law enforcement in the rugged countryside of Brewster County during the course of what was one of the most massive manhunts in recent West Texas history. Following a shootout with police at his mother’s house, Alvaro was captured and charged with two counts of aggravated assault; one for allegedly pointing the gun at Sheriff McDaniel after disarming him, and another count for allegedly shooting an officer, Curtis Hines, in the hand during the shootout.

At the trial, witnesses testified that Alvaro never pointed the gun at McDaniel. McDaniel accused Alvaro of pointing the gun at his chest—threatening him with a deadly weapon—but Alvaro swears this is a lie. In a live interview on local television on July 18th following the confrontation at Alvaro’s house, McDaniel told viewers that Alvaro had only disarmed him and neither threatened nor shot him.

“Days later,” Alvaro explains, “when the Sheriff met with the District Attorney he changed his story to say that I had not only disarmed him but had pointed the gun at him—the difference between a minor misdemeanor and a first degree felony offense.” The videotape was ultimately kept out of court proceedings; Alvaro’s lawyer Tony Chavez is rumored to have potentially struck a backdoor deal with the prosecution. At the time, Chavez was under investigation himself for drug trafficking and was facing many years in prison under a plethora of forthcoming RICO charges. In fact, just months after Alvaro’s trial, Chavez immediately took a plea bargain and was sent to federal prison for 30 months and disbarred from the practice of law.

Throughout the trial numerous witnesses, including former law enforcement officers, also testified to the intense, longstanding police hatred of Alvaro. Alvaro was found not guilty on the second count of shooting Officer Hines in the hand (it was determined that Hines was hit by a ricocheting police bullet). Despite considerable public protest, however, the nearly-all-white jury found Alvaro guilty of “aggravated assault” for allegedly pointing the gun at McDaniel’s chest—an accusation which Alvaro vociferously and consistently denies to this day.

Alvaro Luna Hernandez was sentenced to 50 years in state prison in the summer of 1997. He will not be officially “eligible” for parole until 2021.

* * *

Though his appeals have all been exhausted, options still remain within the legal system to bring about Alvaro’s release. The KOSA TV videotape interview with McDaniel may still exist, and a full review of federal, state, and local files pertaining to Alvaro, and his ex-lawyer Chavez, is likely to shed light on Alvaro’s conviction and political imprisonment. Obtaining the pro bono assistance of one or more bright legal minds to help pursue other existing, and very promising, legal avenues to reenter the courts continues to be a top priority and a potential source of hope.

There is one thing, however, that remains clear and undisputed: absent a substantial popular mobilization and grassroots campaign pushing for his freedom, Alvaro faces a virtual life sentence of incarceration in the brutal control units of Texas’ state prisons. Yet in the meantime, although buried deep beneath the razor-wire fences, uncounted tons of cold steel, and the rows of soul-destroying concrete cages of Hughes Unit Prison, Alvaro Luna Hernandez remains among America’s most fearless political prisoners, incessantly struggling for freedom, locked up but never defeated.

Max Kantar is a Michigan-based independent writer and the Midwest representative for the Committee to Free Alvaro Luna Hernandez. For more information on Alvaro’s case, visit www.freealvaro.net. Max can be reached at maxkantar@gmail.com.

Buried in the Bureau of Prisons

David C. Fathi 

Director, ACLU National Prison Project

Posted: June 4, 2010 04:31 PM 

Imagine a country in which prisoners can be denied visits, and even telephone calls, with family members for years at a time. Imagine a country in which government officials can prevent prisoners from telling news reporters about mistreatment or abuse. Imagine a country in which prisoners who are foreign citizens can be denied their right, guaranteed by international treaty, to meet with consular officials from their nation of origin. Unfortunately, that country is not some totalitarian state in the 1950s, but the United States in 2010.
Since 2006, the federal Bureau of Prisons has quietly operated a “Communications Management Unit” (CMU) at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana. A second CMU was opened in Marion, Illinois, in 2008. Prisoners in these units face strict limits on visiting and telephone contact with the outside world.

The government has so far been operating these units without regulatory authority, but in April of this year, it belatedly published proposed rules that would authorize their operation. These rules make clear just what the government has in mind: a regime even more draconian than currently exists in the CMUs. Prisoners would be allowed only one 15-minute telephone call per month, with “immediate family members only” (defined to include only parents, spouses, children and siblings); one one-hour noncontact visit per month, with immediate family members; and one letter per week, limited to three pieces of paper, to and from a single recipient, “at the discretion of the Warden.”

When the CMUs were first established, the government justified them as necessary to monitor the communications of convicted or suspected terrorists. But in a classic case of mission creep, the new regulations provide that a prisoner can be transferred to a CMU if there is “any … evidence of a potential threat to the safe, secure, and orderly operation of prison facilities, or protection of the public, as a result of the inmate’s communication with persons in the community.” Given that most people in BOP custody are already accused or convicted of criminal activity, this standard imposes no meaningful limits; virtually any of the more than 200,000 federal prisoners could be sent to a CMU. In fact the CMUs have already been used to house prisoners who have not been convicted, or even accused, of terrorist activity. And because the CMU transfer decision is made solely by the Bureau of Prisons, with no external review or oversight, prisoners lack a meaningful way to challenge their placement.


These proposed rules represent an unprecedented attack on First Amendment rights, both of prisoners and of those on the outside — family, friends, journalists, clergy, and others — who want to communicate with them. A CMU prisoner who was raised by his aunt or grandmother will not be allowed to receive visits from her, or even talk to her by telephone. A reporter who wants to interview a prisoner alleging mistreatment or abuse won’t be allowed to do so. Never in modern U.S. history have prison officials been given the power to create a class of prisoners who are denied virtually all communication with the outside world.
The proposed rules also violate U.S. treaty obligations. Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (PDF), ratified by the United States in 1969, consular officers have the right to visit their nationals who are in prison or detention in a foreign country, for the purpose of arranging legal representation or providing other assistance. Although more than one-quarter of the bureau’s prisoners are foreign nationals, the proposed rules make no provision for the consular visits required by the treaty. Past U.S. violations of the Vienna Convention have resulted in judgments against the United States by the International Court of Justice; the proposed rules make it all but certain that more treaty violations will occur in the future.

The government predictably defends the CMUs as necessary for security. But prison officials already have the authority to control and limit prisoners’ correspondence, telephone calls, and visits, and to monitor those communications to detect and prevent criminal activity. For example, prison staff must approve a prisoner’s visitor lists; they may conduct background checks for that purpose, and may disapprove any visitor. Visiting areas may be monitored. Prison officials may deny placement of a given telephone number on a prisoner’s telephone list if they determine that there is a threat to security. Telephone calls are also monitored. Prison officials have the authority to open and read all non-legal prisoner mail. The proposed CMU rules don’t explain why these existing security measures are insufficient. And they certainly don’t explain how security is meaningfully advanced by preventing a prisoner from calling his grandmother.

The Bureau of Prisons is accepting public comments on the proposed rules through June 7. On Tuesday, the ACLU submitted comments calling for the immediate closure of CMUs. See the instructions for filing comments, and submit your own here.

ACT NOW: FBOP trying to expand use of CMUs

News via our comrade, Vikki Law. There is action to take here:

———————-

The BOP is proposing further isolating people in Communications Management Units. There’s a period for public comment that ends June 7th.

Conveniently for the BOP, the comment form is undergoing some maintenance this weekend and won’t be back up until Monday, 5/31, at 11:59 pm. But that still leaves a week to leave a comment on the proposed rules.

If you can’t wait till Tuesday morning, you can also snail mail your outrage to the BOP:

Rules Unit, Office of General Counsel
Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street, NW.
Washington, DC 20534

Include the following docket number in your correspondence:

BOP DOCKET #1148-P COMMUNICATION MANAGEMENT UNITS

Rasta inmates spend 10 years in isolation for hair

After 10 years in segregation for their hair, Rastafarian inmates remain peacefully defiant.

Kendall Gibson would seem to be one of Virginia’s most dangerous prisoners.

For more than 10 years he has lived in segregation at the Greensville Correctional Center, spending at least 23 hours every day in a cell the size of a gas station bathroom. In a temporary home for the worst of the worst — inmates too violent or disruptive to live among the rest of society’s outcasts — he has been a permanent fixture.

He is there, he says, not for his crimes but for a crime he will not commit — a crime against God.

The only thing imposing about Gibson is his long black dreadlocks, resting on the front of his shoulders so they won’t drag the ground as he shuffles along in his orange jumpsuit.

It is his hair — winding locks he considers a measure of his Rastafarian faith — that makes him a threat, according to Virginia Department of Corrections Operating Procedure No. 864.1.

The rule took effect on Dec. 15, 1999. Inmates had two choices: cut their hair no longer than their collars and shave their beards, or be placed in administrative segregation.

In the beginning, Gibson was among as many as 40 inmates who opted for confinement over cutting. By 2003, when a handful of the inmates filed a federal lawsuit against the department over their detention, 23 remained in segregation.

The lawsuit failed. Some cracked under the pressure of constant isolation with no visits from loved ones, educational or religious programs or commissary. Some went home.

Today, it’s difficult to tell exactly how many remain in isolation. The Department of Corrections won’t volunteer the information, but has confirmed 10 names given to The Associated Press by a group of Rastafarian inmates.

Not everyone can handle it, Gibson says. For those weak in mind or spirit, the walls can easily close in on them.

“People always ask how I can smile in a place so negative,” he says. The Rastafarian God, Jah, “is my answer. Without Jah in my life I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

___

Like most of the Rastafarians in segregation, Gibson didn’t become a believer until after he entered prison. He was 18 and had a long time to do, sentenced to 47 years on robbery, abduction and gun charges.

Gibson had always loved the “peaceful vibes of Rastafari livity,” but like many he knew the movement by the hair, the music and the ganja. In prison, he met others who taught him the spiritual aspects. He took on the name Ras-Talawa Tafari, a strong leader who inspires awe.

Rastafari draws from the Bible, mixing in African and Caribbean cultural influences. It is considered by many more of a way of life or movement than a religion. They preach unity with god, nature and each other, but are loosely organized and followers are free to worship with other congregations.

Rastafarians regard Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, who was known as Ras Tafari before he rose to power in 1930, as the second coming of Christ. They believe Jah inhabits them so there it no real need for a church. They smoke marijuana as a sacrament and adhere to a vegetarian diet.

While some view growing their hair as optional, most Rastafarians see it as demanded by the Nazarite Vow in the Bible (Numbers 6:5), “There shall no razor come upon his head.”

Gibson never entertained the thought of cutting his hair when the policy was announced or during the 10 long years since. “Jah didn’t lead I to feel that this plight was burden enough to bow,” he says.

A person must be willing to stand up and fight for a worthy cause, he says, echoing Rastafarian messenger Bob Marley’s rhythmic chant “Get up. Stand up. Stand up for your rights.”

Gibson longs to hear such reggae music. A clear analog radio that picks up about nine stations is his only luxury in his small cell, but the island music doesn’t get much air time in these parts.

His days are long but compact. Five days a week, he is led in restraints to an outside cage that resembles a dog kennel for an hour of recreation. Otherwise, he only leaves his 8-by-10 cell for three, 20-minute showers each week.

His cinderblock walls are off-white or gray, depending on the way the light hits them. The cell is freshly painted, drowning out the smell of his Dove soap resting on his one-piece sink-toilet unit.

If he stands on top of his mounted stainless steel bed Gibson can peak out the window, where he can see inmates in the general population recreation yard in the distance. He prefers to stare into the woods just beyond the razor-wife fence. On occasion he spies a deer grazing in the field.

The segregation unit has 16 cells, and although the inmates can’t see each other they often talk. Gibson is amazed at what he calls their pure confusion and senseless babbling — obsession with the lives of movie stars and rappers and sports figures.

And then there are the other Rastafarians. “These people may have my physical body confined, but I refuse to surrender my mind and spirit,” says Allen McRae, also known as Ras-Solomon Tafari, who is serving 20 years for cocaine possession.

Elton Williams, who is behind bars for armed robbery, gets the question all the time from inmates pulling stints in segregation. Wouldn’t it be easier just to cut his hair?

His answer: “My very soul depends on the decisions I make.”

Williams, 31, likens it to a Christian who is told that, for security reasons, he must denounce Christ. Williams is set to leave prison in December; he could cut his hair until then, he says, but what would happen to his soul?

Then there was Ivan Sparks, a 59-year-old Rastafarian elder who refused to cut his hair and was sent into segregation at Buckingham Correctional Center.

He never left it — except to die at Virginian Commonwealth University Medical Center last fall, of prostate cancer.

___

The way Department of Corrections officials see it, the inmates could come out of segregation any time they wish.

They made a choice to go to segregation instead of cutting their hair, spokesman Larry Traylor says. Should they decide to comply with the grooming policy, they could return to general population.

“Rules must be in place in order to have a secure, safe environment for everyone,” Traylor said. “An inmate that will not follow the rules jeopardizes normal prison operations and is potentially a danger to other inmates and staff.”

Virginia is among only about a dozen states, mostly in the South, that limit the length of inmates’ hair and beards, according to the American Correctional Chaplains Association. A handful of those allow religious accommodations for Rastafarians, Muslims, Sikhs, native Americans and others whose religious beliefs prohibit shaving or cutting their hair.

There is no hair policy for federal prisoners.

The U.S. Supreme Court has said that constitutional protections, like the right to practice religion, do not end at the prison gates. Congress has said institutions can restrict religious liberties only for compelling reasons, like security, but the policies must be the least restrictive means to accomplish that.

Still, inmates have rarely been successful in challenging prison grooming policies.

A native American inmate spent a year in his cell and lost other privileges before a federal appeals court ruled in 2005 that the California prison system’s ban on long hair violated his religious freedom.

In a 2002 case, a group of Rastafarian and Muslim federal inmates who were housed in Virginia prisons challenged the grooming policy and a federal court ordered the Bureau of Prisons to transfer them to other facilities that did not have such policies. The court also required the federal prison system to evaluate inmates’ religious beliefs and refrain from sending them to Virginia or other states with burdensome grooming policies.

But in the case filed by the Virginia state prisoners, a federal appeals court ruled in 2008 that the Department of Corrections’ argument that inmates could hide weapons and other contraband in long hair or easily change their appearance upon escape was compelling enough reason to require trimmed hair.

Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the inmates, said the outcome was deeply disappointing because he knew the sincerest believers would be those who would be punished most severely.

“This has a disturbingly mean-spirited aspect to it,” Willis says. “This is not about corrections. This is not about security, but it’s about punishment. In this instance, people are being punished for their religious beliefs.”

Today, the department cuts each inmate’s hair when he enters prison. If he refuses, the use of “reasonable force and restraints” is authorized. If the inmate grows his hair back and refuses to cut it, he is sent to segregation.

Thomas Fitzgerald, 52, had grown his locks for 10 years before he was sent to prison for possession of a firearm by a felon. He said he started going bald after his hair was unceremoniously shorn from his head, and he’s convinced that there’s a connection.

The last time he saw his locks they were being stuffed into a red biohazard plastic bag. He asked to send them home for a proper burial; his request was denied.

Fitzgerald has chosen to abide by the grooming policy so that he can work toward growing the Rastafarian community inside the prison and when he is released in three years. But it is hard to shake the humiliation: “Every day is a real struggle for me because I perceive shaving my face a serious act of mutilation to myself,” he says.

___

With his prison-issue eyeglasses, scrawny frame and boyish smile, Gibson looks much less of a menace than the prisoners stacking lunch trays just outside the glass-walled visitation room.

Even less intimidating are his words — talk of love, faith, “upful vibrations” and, most perplexing of all, happiness.

Now 38, he’s proud of the things he’s accomplished while behind bars. Gibson quit school at 15, but once in prison he completed vocational training in building maintenance and carpentry and in 1994 got his GED, something he said gave him an “irie,” or peaceful and happy, feeling.

Gibson’s five co-defendants are out of prison now. He has been denied parole 12 times for the same reason — the serious nature of his crime — but he knows his refusal to bow to the grooming policy likely played a role in that.

“Life is what we make of it,” he says. “Jah give each person the fullness of free will to create our own personal heaven or hell and joy or pain.”

He tries “to create good irie vibes of joy and not of pain.”

He has bad days, but he tries not to brood, even though he remains in isolation, year after year, as those who murder, rape and maim other inmates are rotated in and out.

He has now been in isolation nearly 4,000 days. He begins each one with prayer, reading scripture and meditation.

At night, when the lights are out, he listens to rodents scampering through the ducts. Sometimes they run across his cell floor and he cringes.

When it’s quiet he can hear a train chugging by and he allows his mind to wonder briefly what is on it, and where’s it’s going.