A rare look inside the Maine State Prison’s ‘supermax’

From: The Portland Phoenix
Nov 8th 2013
By Lance Tapley

“An almost-clean version of hell”
There was a stain of what looked like blood on the floor of the otherwise shiny-clean, empty Mental Health Unit isolation cell. “It’s Kool-Aid,” said my minder, a deputy warden. He smiled. But, as the saying goes, I hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid.

The cell faintly stank of shit. Mentally ill prisoners and those made mentally ill by prolonged solitary confinement are driven to cut themselves and to try to throw their feces at guards.

In one of the Administrative Segregation cellblocks — pure solitary confinement — I heard undulating cries and saw shadowy faces behind the steel doors’ tiny windows.

The Maine State Prison “supermax,” or Special Management Unit, is an ugly place. Are my photos ugly enough? Trying to fit form to content, I used an old film camera and grainy-image-producing 400-speed, black-and-white film shot usually without a flash under fluorescent lights.

There were big limitations. I was not supposed to photograph prisoners, and my tour was rapid. That said, I was, possibly, the first journalist to visit and photograph the supermax — after eight years of writing about it.

Super-harsh supermax (super-maximum-security) prisons and their central feature of solitary confinement became a correctional craze 30 years ago. They became dumping grounds for the mentally ill and others who couldn’t follow prison rules or who simply irritated guards. At least 80,000 human beings are held in them nationwide. Maine opened its supermax in the coastal town of Warren in 1992. Ten years later it built the new state prison around it.

The supermax’s unforgiving conditions are not helpful, to put it mildly, in improving prisoner behavior. The evidence is overwhelming, in fact, that protracted solitary confinement damages or destroys prisoners’ minds. Human-rights groups consider it torture. And it costs taxpayers twice as much as “general population” incarceration.

Last inmates leave Tamms ‘supermax’ prison

One of the more contentious episodes in the history of Illinois penitentiaries ended Friday as the last inmates held at the “supermax” prison in Tamms moved out and Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration prepares to shut it down.

The final five inmates at the high-security home for the “worst of the worst” were shipped to the Pontiac Correctional Center, a prison spokeswoman said. Among the last to leave was a convict who helped lead a prison riot in 1979 and stabbed serial killer John Wayne Gacy while on death row.

Also bused out of the southern Illinois city were four dozen residents of the adjoining minimum-security work camp, packed off to Sheridan Correctional Center in north-central Illinois.

The departures mark the end of a nearly 15-year experiment with the super maximum-security prison, which supporters say the state still needs for troublemaking convicts — particularly during a time of record inmate population. But opponents contend the prison’s practice of near-total isolation was inhumane and contributed to some inmates’ deteriorating mental health.

More than 130 inmates were moved out of the prison in just nine days, after the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that legal action by a state workers’ union could no longer hold up the governor’s closure plans. The state has offered to sell the $70 million facility the federal government, but there are no solid plans for the future of the prison, often simply called Tamms.

“It’s sad for our area, but we’re never going to give up,” said Rep. Brandon Phelps, a Democrat from Harrisburg whose district includes Tamms. “We still have an overcrowding problem. That’s the deal with this. The governor has made it worse. Eventually, some of these facilities are going to have to reopen.”

But activists opposed to the prison’s isolation practices cheered Friday’s landmark moment. One organizer, Laurie Jo Reynolds, called the course to closure “a democratic process” that involved not high-priced lobbyists or powerful strategists but, “the people — truly, the people.”

Shuttering Tamms is part of Quinn’s plan to save money. The Democrat said housing an inmate at the prison cost three times what it does at general-population prisons. He has also closed three halfway houses for inmates nearing sentence completion, relocating their 159 inmates, and plans to shutter the women’s prison in Dwight. 

Read the rest here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-last-inmates-leave-tamms-supermax-prison-20121228,0,1550702.story

Voices from Solitary: “No Wonder There Are So Many Suicides”

From: SolitaryWatch
Dec 17th 2012

The following comes from a prisoner currently housed in maximum security housing at Utah State Prison, Draper. He has spent, by his estimate, seven years in either supermaximum or maximum security housing. He recently had a heart attack in maximum security and reportedly has received minimal health care treatment while incarcerated. He describes here the  Uinta 1 facility, where over 90 inmates are held in long-term isolation. –Sal Rodriguez

I spent the first two years of my incarceration in general population at a county jail. I had my first heart attack while at the county jail due to misdiagnosed Type 1 Diabetes. Despite my repeated attempts to get medical help, the officials repeatedly denied that there was anything wrong with me even though I exhibited all of the symptoms and signs of diabetes. Eventually, the misdiagnosed diabetes led to the heart attack.

I spent nine days in Intensive Care at the University Medical Center before being released back to prison where I was promptly placed in supermax–Uinta 1. I had not committed any violations to be placed in supermax other than having a heart attack.

I wasn’t considered a protective custody case, as I had just spent two years in general population. No reason was given for my being housed in supermax. I spent only a few months in supermax before being shipped out to another prison out of state. Once back in Utah I was once again placed in supermax without due process or reason, and I spent the next 20 months locked down. I have spent about seven years or more now housed in either supermax or max. I have never had any write-ups or violations to warrant me being housed in maximum security.

I can tell you that life in supermax (Uinta 1) is inhumane. There are inmates still being housed in that unit who have been there for eight years or more, who started off completely sane but now have lost all sanity. Suicide was common in the Uinta’s just a few years ago, forcing the prison to take preventative measures by installing new vent-housings that wouldn’t allow a rope to be tied to it for hanging. There is still many suicides that occur there, although its not like it used to be years ago.

The abuses still continue today with some of the torture techniques used in foreign interrogation. Cells are kept cold, lights are kept on 24/7, guards purposely make noise at all hours to prevent sleep.
Windows are covered by a small door that is only opened when the guard occasionally  looks in, as for count. Mental health care is a joke, as the mental health worker goes cell to cell not spending more than five seconds at each door and only asks “Are you ok?” It’s no wonder there are so many suicides. Mental health shows a lack of concern for those in supermax. It’s the general attitude there.

“Waiting For The World To Give Us A Reason To Live”: Solitary Confinement in Utah

From: SolitaryWatch, Oct. 24th, 2012
By Sal Rodriguez

Utah State Prison’s Uinta 1 facility serves as the prison’s super-maximum security unit, where inmates are held in solitary confinement. Inmates in Uinta 1 may be there for disciplinary infractions, notoriety reasons, protective custody, or because they are security/escape risks. The unit is divided into eight sections with twelve inmates in each section, for a total of 96 maximum inmates. Currently, there are 90 inmates in Uinta 1. The Utah Department of Corrections, in response to a government records request by Solitary Watch, claims it has no records regarding its use of segregation.

Several inmates have recently written Solitary Watch about the conditions in Uinta 1.

L., who has been in Uinta 1 for five months and previously served 28 months there, reports that he is only able to leave his cell three days a week, for a shower and 1 hour alone in a concrete yard. He reports that, in being transported to a 15 minute shower, “we have to wear a spit mask over our faces and handcuffed from behind with a dog leash hooked to us.”

“The rest of the time except on the shower days we are locked down in our cells with the door window closed so you can’t see out,” he writes.

A., who has been in Uinta 1 for a year, adds that, “just the other day, the [Correctional Officers] came and shook our cells down and took away all of our hygiene. They took away shampoo, lotion, conditioner, everything…they also don’t give us anything to clean our cells with.”

A. is in Uinta 1 for his own protection, following what he says was a decision to leave gang life after much “self-study.” Despite this, he says, he is treated as if he committed a  serious offense.

Inmate Brandon Green, who has frequently written on the conditions of Uinta 1, describes the environment in Uinta 1 as reinforcing a vicious cycle in which inmates placed in solitary usually end up back not long after they are released. Green, who has been in Uinta 1 for five years, previously served 18 months in Uinta 1 before a brief period on parole before returning to Utah State Prison. He has been held in Uinta 1 following an escape attempt and refusal to take psychiatric drugs, which he says will only harm his health.

“So alone. So much internal turbulence with nothing like T.V., radio, magazines or conversation to hide [this pain] beneath,” he writes, “a man leaves this place to go to general population or to a less secure facility where you have electronics and a cellie. You can just count down the months before he will return…We learn we can do without anything. And we become content with nothing. The more they take away from us year after year, the more family disappears, the more one doesn’t want to go home, doesn’t want a wife and a job and bills and an Amerikkan future…It is like waiting for the world to give us a reason to live. But the world just keeps giving us reasons to not give a shit.”

This situation leads many inmates to report severe mental health problems that are aggravated by the long-term isolation. The prison routinely responds to such crises by placing suicidal inmates in a strip cell, where they are to be alone in a cell with  and checked every fifteen minutes. Included in many of these cells are cameras.

L. writes that “if someone is gonna kill themselves they take them and out to a strip cell and you sleep on the hard floor and treated like a dog.”

A. reports that “if I lose control because of something I have no control over, they’ll punish me and put me on strip cell for three days…when a mentally ill inmate feels suicidal, they send us to the infirmary to be on suicide watch…then we get from suicide watch back to Uinta 1 and the staff put us back in the strip cell when we get back to Uinta 1.”

In Uinta 1, suicide is not an uncommon occurrence. In 2009, two prisoners in Uinta 1 committed suicide. One was Danny Gallegos, who was found hanged in his cell in June. Another was a friend of Green, Spencer “Spider” Hooper, a “Pink Floyd fan and singer on medications for schizophrenia and depression.” Months after a previous suicide attempt, Hooper was found dead in February 2009, hanging in his cell.

A. and L. also independently confirm that sandbags at the cell doors of inmates gather bugs, which enter their cells. “They got sandbags around all the cells but never pick them up and clean under them so there’s all kinds of bugs and dirt that comes right under our doors,” A. writes.

Green also writes about the declining array of services provided to Uinta 1 inmates. “Years ago indigent captives received five envelopes a week. Now its one. We had five outside contacts a week. Now one. We used to be fed enough to stay full. Now we are starved. We used to have shampoo and lotion. Now we don’t. We grumble for an hour each time something is taken from us. Then move right along to inventing the creative willpower to survive with no penpals and mail, a full stomach or clean hair. Moving right along. We expect tragedy.”

Solitary Watch will continue to report on Uinta 1 as more information becomes available.

Brandon Green welcomes letters. His mailing address is:
Brandon Green #147075, Uinta One 305, Utah State Prison, PO Box 250, Draper, Utah 84020. His blog, updated by an outside supporter, can be seen here.

Lost In the Hole: Mentally ill felons locked in own hell

The Salt Lake City Weekly published a 4 part story about Uinta 1, Utah State Prison, the supermax, where we have been publishing stories about written by one of its inhabitants, Brandon Green. A few years ago, we knew they were planning to write about the situation inside this draconian hellhole, and finally they did.

Written by Stephen Dark, posted in the SLC City Week Sept 26th, 2012.

Here is Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4

Please also read: http://www.cityweekly.net/utah/blog-24-8503-inmates-leave-the-hole.html

Prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison on hunger strike

From: SF Bay View
May 27, 2012
by Mary Ratcliff, SF Bay View

On May 22, brave prisoners at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison began a hunger strike. Their decision to starve themselves in an effort to be heard is the latest in a recent series of prison strikes, one of the very few forms of peaceful recourse available to prisoners to protest intolerable conditions.

The series started Dec. 9, 2010, with a sit-down strike by thousands of prisoners in Georgia, tired of being forced to work for free like slaves, followed by Lucasville prisoners’ hunger strike at Ohio State Penitentiary in January 2011 and the mass hunger strikes in California beginning July 1, 2011, that involved 12,000 prisoners in 13 prisons simultaneously refusing food at their peak. Hunger strikes worldwide, from Palestine, where prisoners acknowledged being inspired by their peers in California, to Kyrgysztan, where prisoners literally sewed their mouths shut, have followed.

Red Onion State Prison in rural Virginia sits in the barren crater of a formerly lush green mountain whose top was blown off to remove the coal that used to be mined the old-fashioned way. Built in 1998, it’s the new economic development model for Appalachia: mountaintop removal covered by prisons and Wal-Marts, now the only job options for out-of-work miners and their families, according to JJ Heyward, a veteran activist who volunteered at the Bay View before moving to the East Coast.

Now the miners who used to mine “black gold” – coal – mind Black prisoners. Heyward says that Washington, D.C., has no prisons, so anyone sentenced to five years or more is shipped out of state, often to Red Onion, culturally a world away. Creative activists to the rescue, the staff of WMMT Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky, broadcast a show connecting prisoners and their families back home that can be heard in Red Onion and seven more state and federal mountain prisons plus many regional jails and detention centers.
“Red Onion State Prison was opened a dozen years ago amid a major prison-building effort in Virginia. It was designed to confine the most dangerous criminals – often in solitary cells where they have almost no interaction with others,” reads the caption published with this photo by The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

“In recent years, central Appalachia has seen a boom in prison construction, and many of those who have subsequently been incarcerated in our region’s growing prison system come from places far, far away from the coalfields,” explains WMMT. “Due to this distance and the often prohibitive cost of phone calls in prison, many have no contact with their friends and family, being far outside of a travel range that many loved ones can afford. In response, WMMT began the Holler to the Hood project 10 years ago in an effort to connect those in prison to their families, friends and the outside world.”

The show, now called Hot 88.7 – Hip Hop from the Hilltop and Calls From Home, airs Mondays 9-10 p.m. Eastern Time (6-7 p.m. Pacific Time). Go to WMMT to listen live. This week’s show will focus on the Red Onion hunger strike. Call 1(888) 396-1208 to record your message between 7-9 p.m. (4-6 p.m. PT) on Monday for broadcast that night. [links for WMMT do not appear to work: http://appalshop.org/wmmtfm/ – VA PW]

A statement released by one of the hunger strike representatives says: “Regardless of sexual preference, gang affiliation, race and religion, there are only two classes at this prison: the oppressor and the oppressed. We the oppressed are coming together. We’re considered rival gang members, but now we’re coming together as revolutionaries. We’re tired of being treated like animals.”

After exhausting legal and administrative remedies, the Red Onion prisoners issued 10 demands (printed in full below) and vowed to starve themselves until their demands are met. They include the right to have fully cooked meals, the right to clean cells, the right to be notified of the purpose and duration of their detention in segregation and a call for an end to indefinite segregation. Red Onion has been repeatedly criticized since it opened in 1998. A 1999 Human Rights Watch report on Red Onion concluded that the “Virginia Department of Corrections has failed to embrace basic tenets of sound correctional practice and laws protecting inmates from abusive, degrading or cruel treatment.”

Torture, Red Onion style

I first heard of Red Onion when Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, a nationally known prison writer and artist often compared to George Jackson, designed what became the symbol of the California hunger strikes. It shows black, brown and white arms clasped together indicating racial unity around a fork and spoon on a map of California crossed out as in a “no smoking” sign.
Rashid Johnson, who drew this self portrait, is a founding organizer of the New African Black Panther Party-Prison Chapter (NABPP-PC) and author of the book “Defying the Tomb.” With a foreword by Russell “Maroon” Shoats and afterword by Sundiata Acoli, renowned political prisoners, the book has been banned as “gang literature” by Pelican Bay State Prison.
Rashid’s acclaim did not protect him at Red Onion, where, in one of countless episodes of torture, he was assaulted by staff on Dec. 12, 2011. They dislocated his shoulder and pulled a 3-inch by 7-inch swath of his dreadlocks out by the roots. This occurred when he refused to turn his back on an officer as he came out of the exercise cage.

Mac Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion for 14 years released only last June, was interviewed May 22, the day the hunger strike began, on Voices with Vision on Pacifica station WPFW in Washington, D.C. Listen to the show here and read the transcript of the entire interview below, following the 10 demands.

Mac discusses torture at Red Onion: “having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we’ve talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It’s like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being. …

“Access to adequate medical care inside of prison, especially in supermax prison, it’s almost nonexistent. You have men there, they have chronic illnesses that aren’t being treated. There was one guy when I was at Red Onion, he died from undiagnosed advanced diabetes. This guy had diabetes for years and he was never diagnosed. …

“So maybe your fingers were broken, as mine were multiple times at these places, and then you’re denied any sort of medical care. Your bones are never reset, any of that. It’s like they don’t even have medical staff at the prison.

“They come in with riot gear – I’m talking about jump boots, shields, dogs, pepper spray – to assault you. Maybe eight men come in. They wrestle you down.

“You’re totally subdued – handcuffed, shackled – and then they proceed to break your fingers. They bend them back one by one, trying to break as many of your fingers as they can. They try to break your toes. And the whole time they are yelling out, ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting!’ to make it look like you’re the one who is escalating the situation.

“When you’re taken out, they put the spit mask on your face ‘cause they usually bust your face up pretty bad. They put the spit mask on so the camera can’t see the damage that has been inflicted. The nurses come over allegedly to assess the damage.
John “Mac” Gaskins, a prisoner at Red Onion State Prison for 14 years, was released just last June.
“My hand looked like a volley ball. I mean you couldn’t even see the definition of my hand. My whole hand was like a ball. The nurse told me I had full range of movement and no bones in my hand were broken. …

“I have watched men eat feces in prison; I’ve watched men throw feces on each other. I would hear men in their cells screaming at night, basically just escaping to some place of insanity. They are driving men insane. …

“At Red Onion, all of the light is artificial in your cells – there are no windows in the cells – and it’s total sensory deprivation. So they asked this guy Ron D’Angelo, how do you justify sending men here? There are no educational programs, no vocational programs, men are just rotting and deteriorating in these places. …

“He said, ‘We didn’t bring these guys up to the mountains to rehabilitate them; we brought them to the mountains to die.’ …

“Now at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, they are taking away books for guys that are in segregation. You have to meet a certain behavioral criteria to receive books. So, for guys in the old days like George Jackson, that was their only escape. Now you don’t even have that. They have taken that away.”

How you can help

Call WMMT’s Calls From Home show to give a shout out of support to the hunger strikers. The Monday, May 28, show is especially critical; it’s the first since the strike began and will air the 10 demands of the hunger strikers. Prison officials are likely to respond by removing all prisoner radios before the next Monday show, so this will be the last chance to let these brave men know we are out here standing in solidarity with them and doing our best to make their voices heard.

In order to preserve the longevity of the show – which is an important method by which men receive messages weekly from their loved ones back home – WMMT is asking everyone calling in to be conscious of some constraints on what you say:

Don’t mention the pending ROSP hunger strike directly.
No cursing!
Don’t mention any of the men by name.
Don’t make your statement a call to action; this is considered inciting a riot by officials and will give them fuel to impose restrictions on access to the show in the future

They suggest that you:

– read a quote from a hunger striker in California, Ohio, Palestine or elsewhere.
– offer vague solidarity and support for the “struggle”; those who need to know will know what you’re talking about.
– read a short quote from George Jackson, their most beloved revolutionary, or other revolutionary figure.
– keep it short; 50 short messages will be a more powerful display of support than fewer long messages. The men need to know that there are many people out here standing in solidarity.

Calls are taken and recorded from 7-9 p.m. ET (4-6 PT) and then these calls are aired from 9-10 p.m. ET (6-7 p.m. PT). The number to call is (606) 633-1208 or 1(888) 396-1208 to give a shout out. You can listen to the show live at http://appalshop.org/.

Write to Virginia prisoners to spread the word. Red Onion is a supermax prison; prisoners are isolated and communication among them is difficult. Supporters are calling for volunteers to send short, personal, creatively written letters into everyone in the Virginia prison system they have contact information for to inform them of what’s going on. Email katherinecolespiper@gmail.com or JJ Heyward at tortakin@gmail.com for prisoners’ names and addresses. The VDOC (Virginia Department of Corrections) will try hard and fast to silence this and keep the hunger strike from spreading as it did in California. We need to be harder and faster.

Call Virginia officials who have the power to meet the hungers strikers’ demands:

Gov. Bob McDonnell, Robert.F.McDonnell@Governor.Virginia.Gov, (804) 786-4273
Virginia Corrections Director Harold W. Clarke, Harold.Clarke@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (804) 674-3118
Red Onion State Prison Chief Warden Randall Mathena, Randall.Mathena@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (276) 796-7510
Western Region Corrections Operations Chief G.K. Washington, GK.Washington@VADOC.Virginia.Gov, (804) 674-3612

Sample phone call or email: Hello, I’m calling to express my support for the hunger strikers in Red Onion State Prison. These men are on hunger strike to call attention to inhumane conditions at Red Onion, from fully cooked meals and medical attention to sanitary living conditions and an end to solitary confinement. We demand an immediate response to the strikers’ demands. Red Onion has a long history of public scrutiny for conditions, and we, the broad movement to support the Red Onion hunger strikers, won’t let up until their demands are met and until Red Onion guarantees that there will be zero retaliation on the hunger strikers.

Sign the petition in support of the Virginia hunger strikers at http://www.change.org/petitions/grant-the-ten-demands-of-the-hunger-strikers-at-red-onion-state-prison. Sign and share!

Stay updated at http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com/ and, on Facebook, Solidarity for Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers.

The Red Onion hunger strikers, like those who preceded and will inevitably follow them, are dead serious. Their support website, Solidarity with Virginia Prison Hunger Strikers, reports the participants are in good spirits and are encouraged by the outside attention and response to their call for solidarity and support from their communities.

In addition to refusing to eat, the men are also refusing the three weekly showers they are allowed and the one hour of recreation they are permitted each day. They do not want to leave their cells until they are able to talk with a third party outside observer.

On the first day of the strike, strikers in one of the segregation pods were informed that the phone in their pod had “broken.” The same day, one striker was moved from his pod to a different pod in segregation and was threatened with losing his prison job and being charged with a false charge if he did not stop striking.

Strikers expect they will soon be split apart into separate pods (or cell blocks) in an attempt to break the strike. While being separated is not ideal, strikers also realize this could help them to spread word about the strike.

In the words of veteran prisoner advocate Marpessa Kupendua, “We must support these courageous comrades who are actively revolting against the incarceration nation. Go to http://virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com and take action!”
Ten demands of ROSP hunger strikers

We (prisoners at Red Onion State Prison) demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state!

1. We demand fully cooked food and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition, we demand increased portions on our trays, which allow us to meet our basic nutritional needs as defined by VDOC regulations.

2. We demand that every prisoner at ROSP have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork we may request.
The New York City Ad-Hoc Committee staged a solidarity action May 25 with the Red Onion prisoners on hunger strike.
3. We demand better communication between prisoners and higher-ranking guards. Presently higher-ranking guards invariably take the lower-ranking guards’ side in disputes between guards and prisoners, forcing the prisoner to act out in order to be heard. We demand that higher-ranking guards take prisoner complaints and grievances into consideration without prejudice.

4. We demand an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation through the implementation of a fair and transparent process whereby prisoners can earn the right to be released from segregation. We demand that prison officials completely adhere to the security point system, insuring that prisoners are transferred to institutions that correspond with their particular security level.

5. We demand the right to an adequate standard of living, including access to quality materials that we may use to clean our own cells. Presently, we are forced to clean our entire cell, including the inside of our toilets, with a single sponge and our bare hands. This is unsanitary and promotes the spread of disease-carrying bacteria.

6. We demand the right to have 3rd party neutral observers visit and document the condition of the prisons to ensure an end to the corruption amongst prison officials and widespread human rights abuses of prisoners. Internal Affairs and Prison Administrator’s monitoring of prison conditions have not alleviated the dangerous circumstances we are living under while in custody of the state, which include, but are not limited to: the threat of undue physical aggression by guards, sexual abuse and retaliatory measures, which violate prison policies and our human rights.

7. We demand to be informed of any and all changes to VDOC/IOP policies as soon as these changes are made.

8. We demand the right to adequate medical care. Our right to medical care is guaranteed under the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and thus the deliberate indifference of prison officials to our medical needs constitutes a violation of our constitutional rights. In particular, the toothpaste we are forced to purchase in the prison is a danger to our dental health and causes widespread gum disease and associated illnesses.

9. We demand our right, as enumerated through VDOC policy, to a monthly haircut. Presently, we have been denied haircuts for nearly three months. We also demand to have our razors changed out on a weekly basis. The current practice of changing out the razors every three weeks leaves prisoners exposed to the risk of dangerous infections and injury.

10. We demand that there be no reprisals for any of the participants in the Hunger Strike. We are simply organizing in the interest of more humane living conditions.
Interview with recently released Red Onion prisoner John ‘Mac’ Gaskins

This interview was broadcast on Pacifica station WPFW’s Voices with Vision, Washington, D.C., May 22, 11 a.m. It was transcribed by human rights advocate Kendra Castaneda.

Ryme Katkhouda: Good morning, Naji. Share with listeners what has been going on with the mobilizations about prisoners?

Naji Mujahid: As we speak, there’s a press conference going on in Richmond, Virginia, to announce the beginning of a hunger strike at Red Onion State Prison. Red Onion State Prison is a maximum security Virginia state prison down in the southwestern corner of the state where there has been a longstanding problem of abuse.
While in the torturous Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, Rashid Johnson drew what became the symbol of the California hunger strikes.
The prisoners, I would assume, have been inspired by other hunger strikes that have been going on around the country for the past year. We’ve seen them in Ohio, California; there was the work stoppage in Georgia. Also the Palestinian prisoners in Israel have been on strike for some time now. So it’s activity that has been gaining traction; what it seems to be is an attempt at the folks down there to tap into that.

In the studio with us we have John “Mac” Gaskins of the D.C. chapter of SPARC, Supporting Prisoners and Acting for Radical Change, and also somebody who has first-hand experience, having been at Red Onion, and he can speak further to that.

There is a list of 10 demands and the headline of them reads: “We the prisoners at Red Onion State Prison demand the right to an adequate standard of living while in the custody of the state.” And running down the list of demands is real basic stuff; it’s stuff that people shouldn’t have to ask for.

I guess, Mac, you can begin by explaining some of the demands; and one thing that strikes me, having known you and having discussed some of the things going on at Red Onion, you know, this list is kind of tame. It could be miles long but it’s just this basic stuff like toothpaste.

John “Mac” Gaskins: Right, in those prisons, not only in Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, in all those prisons in Southwest Virginia, you’re denied access to basic necessities such as toothpaste, soap. The toothpaste they sell is such low quality they actually sell it in a packet – it’s like a packet of ketchup – and it’s like a dollar. It will last you a couple of days – two days tops. That’s maybe brushing once a day.

All these things from having your fingers broken inside of these places, being bitten by dogs, being strapped to beds for days, as we’ve talked about many times, being forced to defecate on yourself – I mean all of this has led to these men demanding to be treated as human beings. It’s like if you are put inside prison, you forfeit that right to be treated as a human being. So this list is pretty basic. I feel that on this list, medical should be up at the top.

Ryme: What do you mean exactly by medical, Mac? For some listeners, they don’t have a clue about how bad it can be on the inside.

Mac: Access to adequate medical care inside of prison, especially in supermax prison, it’s almost nonexistent. You have men there, they have chronic illnesses that aren’t being treated. There was one guy when I was at Red Onion, he died from undiagnosed advanced diabetes. This guy had diabetes for years and he was never diagnosed.

The guards, which is common practice, they abuse prisoners. One of the demands on here is better communication with prisoners and higher ranking guards. They are demanding that the guards, the higher ranking officials, at least take prisoners complaints into consideration. Because right now they are basically forced to act out in order to get these guys’ attention.

So maybe your fingers were broken, as mine were multiple times at these places, and then you’re denied any sort of medical care. Your bones are never reset, any of that. It’s like they don’t even have medical staff at the prison. It’s totally nonexistent.

Ryme: We always see in the movies, Mac, and for some people that’s their only reference, that there is an infirmary, that there are nurses that are very well dressed and ready to serve you, doctors, and everything looks fine. And we always have this scene – until there is a major uprising – of a really smoothly running prison.

And here you are talking about broken bones and whatever. Where was everybody when your bones were broken? What was going on? Still, give people the story. I know it’s painful, but we need to hear painful. This idea of sugarcoating the world so we don’t see blood about the wars, we don’t hear the pain about what goes on in the prison keeps people complacent and they are not giving support on the outside.

Mac: Yes, yes, I totally agree. So one scenario: Maybe some guy is denied his tray at Red Onion, his meal tray, so he asks for a complaint form, which is totally denied to him. You have to go through the sergeant. They’re not accessible in the office or anything like that. You have to go through the sergeant, and he determines if your complaint is valid or not, which most of the time he’s going to say it isn’t. So maybe this guy floods his cell, which I’ve done, floods his cell or kicks his door to bring attention on himself.

Naji: About flooding his cell, what do you mean, like clogging up the toilet?

Mac: Clogging up the toilet, yeah, and like flooding his cell.

They come in with riot gear – I’m talking about jump boots, shields, dogs, pepper spray – to assault you. Maybe eight men come in. They wrestle you down.

You’re totally subdued – handcuffed, shackled – and then they proceed to break your fingers. They bend them back one by one, trying to break as many of your fingers as they can. They try to break your toes. And the whole time they are yelling out, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” to make it look like you’re the one who is escalating the situation.

When you’re taken out, they put the spit mask on your face ‘cause they usually bust your face up pretty bad. They put the spit mask on so the camera can’t see the damage that has been inflicted. The nurses come over allegedly to assess the damage.

My hand looked like a volley ball. I mean you couldn’t even see the definition of my hand. My whole hand was like a ball. The nurse told me I had full range of movement and no bones in my hand were broken.

The medical staff at the prison, they lie to protect the higher ranking officials at the prison. They would not allow me to go out to see an outside doctor. I never had an x-ray done on my hand, any of that.

So the medical staff there, I mean it’s like they are totally in cahoots with the corruption that’s going on inside the prison. There was another guy where the bone in his hand had been totally snapped in half, and only because of that where they forced to take him to the hospital. His family had come in, they saw it, they made a big fuss about it; but only in extreme cases do you have access to doctors or any sort of adequate medical care in prison. At Red Onion, it’s nonexistent.

They have this guy Ron D’Angelo – they asked him once how do you justify keeping a man in these sorts of conditions? Taking them outside to recreation cages that are like dog kennels. If you are about 6 feet tall, you have to duck down to get inside of this cage – very small, maybe half of this booth, not even that. And you go out there maybe four times a week, for about 45 minutes. And that’s at the discretion of the guards, since they have to get two officers, stripsearch you, handcuff you, both walk you outside, so maybe they don’t feel like giving you rec, so they don’t give you rec that day.

Ryme: And this means time to be in the yard outside your cell, right?

Mac: Yes, but not a yard, not a yard. They have this illusion that you’re outside on the yard. At Red Onion there is no yard; they have dog kennels which are inside of the building. They do have the roof cut off where it looks like you are outside, but you are in this plexiglas enclosure that is surrounded by fence, so you’re not outside.
This drawing by Rashid is called “Control Unit Torture.” To see a mind-blowing display of his work – all of it done while he himself is being tortured in a control unit – go to http://rashidmod.com/art/. Rashid encourages the use of his art for free. You’ll find a drawing on almost every topic you care about. – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson
At Red Onion, all of the light is artificial in your cells – there are no windows in the cells – and it’s total sensory deprivation. So they asked this guy Ron D’Angelo, how do you justify sending men here? There are no educational programs, no vocational programs, men are just rotting and deteriorating in these places. He said in response, “We didn’t bring these guys …”

Ryme: What does that do to men mentally?

Mac: It destroys them. I have watched men eat feces in prison; I’ve watched men throw feces on each other. I would hear men in their cells screaming at night, basically just escaping to some place of insanity. They are driving men insane. I think all of us, I don’t think you can live under those sorts of conditions and not be damaged by that to some degree, so I think you slip in and out of insanity. For someone like me, I just happened to escape and still have some sense of sanity but …

Naji: What were you about to say about what Ron D’Angelo said?

Mac: He said, “We didn’t bring these guys up to the mountains to rehabilitate them; we brought them to the mountains to die.”

There’s this good video – if anyone listening hasn’t seen it, they need to see it – it’s called “Up the Ridge.” They have this footage of when they are doing the ribbon cutting for Wallens Ridge State Prison; there’s this big sign on top of it that says something like Future Home of Virginia’s Exiles, basically meaning all of the guys who can’t fit in the legitimate framework of society, this is where we exile them to, a supermax prison

Ryme: You are listening to Voices with Vision on WPFW, Washington D.C., 89.3FM on your dial. We have with us Mac, who is talking to us about the prisoners’ strike and about Red Onion. This was heavy, so you said there are the medical conditions and there’s also the mental pressure that’s put on the men?

Mac: Yes, and there’s nothing. At one point you couldn’t be sent to Red Onion because they didn’t have any sort of services that accommodated someone with a mental illness. But, in the interest of money, even though it’s a state prison, it’s pretty complicated, because Virginia is building prisons to hold prisoners from other states. That’s what this video “Up The Ridge” is all about.

They have one prison called Green Rock, which only has Pennsylvania prisoners. They don’t hold Virginia prisoners. And Red Onion, Wallens Ridge, was doing that to some degree for a while. They had prisoners from New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Virgin Islands, so they wanted to fill those beds.

When they first built the prisons, there was a criteria: You had to be one of the most violent prisoners in the state. But the guys weren’t really meeting that criteria to fill 1,500 beds or something, so they just started lowering what the required criteria was to be sent to a supermax prison so anyone could go.

Naji: I saw the Wallens Ridge documentary; if I remember correctly, like you said it is supposed to be for the worst of the worst. But you ended up having people come in there for nonviolent offenses and so forth. I think there was a kid from Connecticut, you know they were bringing guys all the way down from Connecticut to Virginia with relatively minor charges. You know, poor fellow ended up committing suicide from the stress that was put on him. I think you told me before, suicide – successful suicides and suicide attempts – is not at all uncommon.

Ryme: There is also a masquerade around suicides that all of us all know just too well, which is when somebody just needs to disappear, there’s suddenly a so-called suicide. This is pretty sad and intense. What besides these two conditions, Mac, are the demands of the prisoners that are on strike?

Mac: The prisoners’ first demand is the demand for fully cooked food and access to a better quality of fresh fruit and vegetables, in addition to increased portions on their food trays. This is a minimal request just to meet their basic nutritional needs as defined by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The food that you get – I can’t explain in words the poor quality of this food – you probably wouldn’t feed this food to your dog, not that a dog is anything less than a human being, that a dog deserves less. You wouldn’t even feed to an animal the food they are feeding to prisoners.

The second demand is that every prisoner at Red Onion State Prison have unrestricted access to complaint and grievance forms and other paperwork they may request. They will give you a grievance form but not a complaint form, and you have to have a complaint form in order to write a grievance form. So if you write the grievance, send that out to the regional director or whatever, he’s going to send it back saying you didn’t take the proper steps first. You’ve got to go through the warden first, but if they are denying you access to complaint forms, then it’s useless to have a grievance form.

Third, we talked about better communication between prisoners and guards.

The fourth, which is very important: “We demand an end to torture in the form of indefinite segregation through the implementation of a fair and transparent process whereby prisoners can earn the right to be released from segregation.” When you go to Red Onion State Prison, it’s not like the typical solitary confinement situation. When you go to Red Onion State Prison, we are talking years no matter what you go there for; everyone goes to segregation. You have to stay in segregation for multiple years. There are guys that have been in segregation since they built the place in 1998.

Naji: Can you explain what segregation is for those who are unfamiliar with it?

Mac: Segregation is, I guess we could, to make it easier, call it solitary confinement, where you are placed in a cell all by yourself for a minimum 23 hours a day, sometimes 23½. You have restricted access to books, media. Your food choices are a lot worse; you get the worst of the food that they serve at the prison. Even though all food they serve at the prison is horrible, in segregation it’s worse. You are only able to take showers three days a week. Your visits are restricted.

You are in this box and the conditions are horrible: sensory deprivation, no windows in the cell. When I came out, Naji, not to get released from prison but to go into a general population setting, it felt like I was getting released from prison.

One, because I had not smelled fresh air in six years because I had been in this cell for six years straight. I had not seen a tree or anything related to nature in years. It doesn’t mean that much until it’s taken away, where you are in some box 23½ hours a day in five or six years.

You haven’t seen another person other than guards that come to the door, and they are totally hostile towards you. Every time that you move from your cell, whether it’s from a visit or to go see a doctor or go to the dog kennels, whatever it is you have to strip naked to go through this humiliating process, bend over, spread your buttocks, open your mouth. They are going to make you do this multiple times until they’re satisfied with your level of humiliation.

Then they are going to chain you up – your wrists, your ankles – and put this belt around your waist, then put this dog leash on – that’s literally a dog leash – to the handcuffs wrapped around your hands. So it’s about a 2- or 3-inch span between you and the officers, like right up on your back, and they march you outside typically at a speed faster than you can walk, so the shackles scrape your legs. It’s horrible conditions, man; that’s solitary confinement.

Now at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, they are taking away books for guys that are in segregation. You have to meet a certain behavioral criteria to receive books. So, for guys in the old days like George Jackson, that was their only escape. Now you don’t even have that. They have taken that away.

Ryme: So much is going on and so much is going on without us realizing it, while really it’s our tax dollars and other countries’ goods and assets that are being pulled to do these things. When we learned that it was happening in Abu Ghraib in Iraq, we said that it is torture and we said it was unacceptable. And here we are in the back yard of the United States, where we sit comfortably in our houses looking at TV and crying over what happens to prisoners abroad, and this is going on.

The strike started this morning. Can you tell the listeners what exactly they can do to support it and for how long is it going to be going on?

Mac: It is going to be going on for a minimum of four days, about four days, Naji?

Naji: I’m not certain.

Mac: In any case, in any hunger strike we want it to be as brief as possible. These are men’s lives we are talking about here. After a couple of weeks, organs start to shut down and men start to die. The hunger strike in any case is a short campaign. It can’t go on forever.

Ryme: How can people get to know more about what’s going on?

Mac: Well, there is some contact information.

Naji: is the website up?

Mac: Yes, contact Virginiasolidraity@gmail.com and the website is Virginiaprisonstrike.blogspot.com.

Naji: There is also a group on Facebook dedicated to solidarity and support of the Virginia hunger strikers. There are tweets coming out at hashtag VA hunger strike.

Ryme: And also, for full disclosure, all the producers and hosts of this show and co-hosts are with the prisoner solidarity movements in different ways. I’m with Stop Mass Incarceration. Naji and Netfa [Freeman] also work on that. This issue is so serious that you’ve got to cross the line, and is there really a line? We are people and this is Voices with Vision.

Mac: I want to add something else. I want folks to, even in your personal space, start to humanize prisoners. There’s this widespread belief that most prisoners are in prison for some heinous violent act, and that is totally untrue. Most of these guys are in prison for drugs and drug related offenses, property crimes.

I was having a discussion a couple nights ago and I said that for me, I want to redefine what it means to be a political prisoner. Not just because you are in prison because of a political act, but most folks in prison are political prisoners because the basis of their incarceration is all built around a political agenda: The war on poverty, that’s a political agenda. The war on drugs, that’s a political agenda. So these guys are political prisoners. Even though they don’t know it, they are political prisoners.

So the way we stay in solidarity, man, is getting involved with whatever efforts folks doing on the ground – standing in solidarity with that – maybe even doing a hunger strike ourselves out here on the outside. Contact your legislators. Wherever you are, man, do whatever you can to show support to prisoners, because this isn’t a Virginia issue; this is a human rights issue.

This thing with Wells Fargo is still going on, so we’ve got to ramp that up a little bit.

Ryme: Well Fargo funding private prisons?

Mac: Wells Fargo, the biggest funder of Geo Group, the second largest provider of private prisons in this country.

Ryme: Thank you, Mac. This is really important to keep in the consciousness in the people.

Naji: Mac mentioned to contact the legislators. You can contact the state legislators in Virginia, or even if you don’t live in Virginia, the state legislators here. In Washington, the senators. Also send this out to different media outlets. Just support by getting the word out and by getting in touch with people whom you know to be possibly influential and helpful in this situation.

Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff can be reached at editor@sfbayview.com or (415) 671-0789.

Voices from Solitary: “The Isolated Prisoner”

From: SolitaryWatch
February 18, 2012
by Sal Rodriguez

The following poem comes from an inmate at Utah State Prison’s Draper supermax unit. Initially convicted of a non-violent drug offense, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison, he has been held in isolation for more than three years. He is also corresponding for an upcoming Solitary Watch article on the practice of solitary confinement in Utah. He is held in his cell 46 hours and 45 minutes straight before being allotted 75 minutes to shower and use the phone…

Isolated tension so thick you can see it, feel it when you walk into our section, or hear it if you stop and pay attention.

Intense anger and open fury evoked by constant frustration. Hidden cries and silent tears from hopes of false delusions.

Shattered dreams and broken promises from Men who played against reality, or some just out here on some type of adversity.

Still, the outcome is the same, a cell designed for my undeclared torture, for an inconceivable amount of time intended deep within the future.

Forty-six hours in a single cell with the very minimal needs given, while my sanity and well-being is constantly in a struggle of being taken.

Suffering from the hands of time that seem to never turn, while anticipating some type of unfulfilling yearn.

Sentenced to this heinous life like a chaotic scream! Stranded in a prison within a prison, designed with immorality.

Maine Cuts Supermax Population, Reforms Solitary Confinement Practices

From SolitaryWatch.com

by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella

As Lance Tapley reported last week, recent developments in Maine demonstrate the difference that reform-minded leadership can make to prison conditions, including the use and abuse of solitary confinement. Even as it has grown exponentially over recent decades, the use of solitary has generally been treated not as a human rights issue but as a matter of correctional policy. As a result, tens of thousands of prisoners have been placed in isolation largely at the behest of prison guards and wardens, with the approval of state departments of protections. Now, Maine’s corrections commissioner is instead using his power to reform state policies and procedures in relation to solitary confinement.

“Less than three months into his job,” Tapley writes in the Portland Phoenix, ”Maine’s new corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has begun to dramatically reform the Maine State Prison’s long-troubled solitary-confinement ‘supermax’ unit.” Ponte has thus far cut the unit’s population by more than half, from 132 inmates to 60, and “has ordered that an inmate can’t be placed in the supermax for longer than 72 hours without his personal approval.” Ponte also issued new rules that have stopped “brutal ‘cell extractions’ by guards of uncooperative inmates” (a practice that was widely exposed by Tapley’s reporting and leaked prison videos several years ago). ”Extractions normally end with inmates strapped into a restraint chair. There were 54 extractions in 2010 and 74 in 2009, the Department of Corrections says, and before publicity about them in recent years the annual number was in the hundreds.” The article continues:

Read the rest here.

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


“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.

Rally April 10th at OSP against Solitary Confinement and Discrimination

18 Years of Solitary Confinement is Enough! If you heap the harshest possible punishment on the negotiators, what incentive will there be to negotiate during the next uprising?

Protest the Solitary Confinement of the Lucasville Uprising Prisoners and the Discrimination against the Religious Practices of Native American Prisoners by Rallying at the Gates of the Ohio State Penitentiary – Sunday, April 10, 2:30 PM
878 Coitsville-Hubbard Rd., Youngstown, OH

On April 10, 1883, The U.S. Secretary of the Interior forbid Native Americans from practicing their religious practices and customs, such as Sun Dances, claiming they were “un-American.”

Rally to protest inhumane treatment in Ohio’s supermax prison, OSP.
The Lucasville Uprising was April 11, 1993.
Bring signs and banners.

Gather in the parking lot of the church next to the entrance gate to OSP.
For information about car pooling and directions from the Cleveland area, call 216-925-9108 or email lucasvillefreedom@gmail.com.

A collaboration of the Lucasville Uprising Freedom Network and New Black Panther Party – Cleveland Link.

Note added April 7th: Please also (re-)read this article by Bomani Shakur, written in 2007, about April 11th.