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Indiana Control Unit Prisoners File Suit and Strike

On May 4, 1992, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit in the Marion County, Indiana, Superior Court. The action is Taifa Vs. Bayh, and challenges numerous conditions of confinement at the Westville, IN, Maximum Control Center. It is interesting to note the action is being filed in state court. Because the suit claims prison officials have violated several state statutes only a state court can rule on the state law claims. It may also be that the Indiana state constitution provides more protection than the federal constitution. In recent years the US Supreme Court has steadily narrowed the scope of 8th amendment protection available to prisoners from the federal courts.

The suit directly challenges the philosophy behind the "supermax" control unit prison, both at Westville and another "supermax" under construction in Sullivan, IN. The plaintiff class is currently over 80 men housed at the MCC. The suit claims that Indiana prison officials have violated state law by administratively housing prisoners in MCC for long periods of time when Indiana statutes limit the conditions where prisoners can be segregated. The criteria for MCC placement is vague, subjective and discretionary allowing prisoners to be placed in MCC in retaliation for exercising their rights of free speech, access to the courts, etc. Several of the plaintiff's are in MCC because they have sued Indiana prison officials and assisted other prisoners in litigation.

Also challenged is the MCC behavior modification program which requires total submission of the prisoners to state power. Prisoners are denied telephone and visiting privileges for the first 90 days, then allowed 1 visit and 1 call every 30 days. Prisoners are not allowed to talk to other prisoners, talk back to staff, get under their blankets during the day despite cold cell temperatures and are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day with nothing to do. Guards routinely give prisoners "bad day" reports which deprive them of a months vested good time thus keeping the prisoner in MCC longer, there is no hearing or other means to contest such reports. The total program at 3 "levels" of repression within the MCC which calls for a prisoner to remain infraction free for 3 years means they have little hope of ever being released from isolation and returning to general population.

The conditions imposed are those of sensory deprivation and complete denial of human contact. There are no clocks in MCC and prisoners are not allowed to have watches or clocks and staff are prohibited from telling prisoners the date or time. Lights in the units and cell remain on for 24 hours a day. The cells have solid doors which remain shut except for a small slot opened for meals. Prisoners are deprived of virtually all property and are not allowed to display pictures of loved ones. Even when allowed to receive visits only members of their immediate family are allowed to visit.

Indiana law mandates the provision of vocational, educational and rehabilitative opportunities and mandates meaningful exercise and recreation for its prisoners yet these are completely absent from the MCC.

The prisoners are exposed to cell temperatures as low as 46 degrees F. Despite this they are denied warm clothing and are not allowed to get under the blankets during the day, if they do get under their blankets their cells are stripped of bedding and they are forced to lay on a cold steel bedframe or on the concrete floor. To increase the prisoners suffering their socks are taken away as well. The air is extremely dry and the water hard resulting in extreme skin irritations such as peeling, cracking and bleeding lips, feet and scalps. After prison doctors prescribed vaseline and skin lotions to treat these problems the warden, Charles Wright, refused to provide these items to the prisoners.

The suit challenges the denial of attorney visits to prisoners and the restriction of such visits when they do take place. Prisoners are handcuffed and in leg irons and separated from their counsel by a wall and window, communication takes place through an electronic device which allows the attorney-client conversations to be overhead by prison officials and other visitors. There are no inmates trained in law to help prisoners, prisoners cannot check out or buy lawbooks. Illiterate prisoners are not assisted nor provided with an attorney or lay advocates during disciplinary hearings.

The plaintiffs also challenge the numerous instances of physical and verbal abuse. This includes beatings by guards, the use of fire hoses and chemical agents, handcuffing prisoners and strapping them to steel bedframes then feeding them only twice a day and routinely putting handcuffs on too tightly.

The medical care is grossly inadequate, one prisoner had a heart attack and did not receive treatment until 10 days later. Plaintiff Broadus is disabled and cannot walk and prison officials will not provide him with a wheelchair. Because he cannot walk he has been denied visits with his attorneys. Prison guards have firehosed him to serve as a "shower". One prisoner had his four front teeth knocked out in April, 1991, and has been told he will not receive replacement teeth until sometime in 1993. There is no psychiatric care available and as a result of the extended isolation and cruel conditions several prisoners have had mental breakdowns and still did not receive treatment.

We have reported in past issues of PLN that MCC prisoners have gone on hungerstrikes and cut off their fingers to publicize their plight. We have received a letter from Paul Komyatti, an MCC prisoner, who informs us that they have begun another hungerstrike. His letter is dated June 15, l992, and says in part: "Today is now the 31st day of the strike, myself and another prisoner are on 31, one is on 29, one is at 25, one is at 21 and 2 at 15. They should start the forcefeedings this week. Our body temperatures are dropping in the 95's, I've lost over 35 pounds and others are close to that much, we're all dehydrated, I'm pretty weak and can barely stand now. There were as many as 23 at one time but others have fallen off along the way going as far as they could."

A demonstration was scheduled outside the prison for friday, July 11, l992, but as we go to press we have not received information on how this went.

The spread of control unit prisons is happening across the country as the response to overcrowding and deteriorating conditions. These control units serve the intimidate and try to destroy prisoners, especially those who organize or seek to improve prison conditions. So far the courts have rubberstamped the most hideous control unit conditions at the federal penitentiary at Marion and elsewhere. It will take grassroots organizing and support from the outside to shut these modern day torture chambers down. While the architecture is new and state of the art and does not fit the idea of the medieval dungeon we have to expose the nature of the modern control unit for what it is: a sensory deprivation torture center designed to break people's mind, body and spirit. It was grassroots support that helped close down the fed's High Security Unit at the women's prison in Lexington, Kentucky and that is what we will need to halt these oppressive conditions as the courts are unlikely to intervene. We will continue to keep readers posted of developments in the struggle against control units but remember we also rely on you, our readers to let us know what is going on so keep us posted.

To protest conditions at MCC in Indiana write: James Aiken, Commissioner, Dept. of Corrections, 302 W. Washington, rm E 334. Indianapolis, IN. 46204 or call the MCC at (219) 289-9767 or 289-2126 ask for warden Charles Wright.

For more information on the MCC prisoners struggle contact their attorney: Mariel Nanasi, 134 N. Lasalle, Ste. 2106, Chicago, IL. 60602 (312) 855-0115 (no collect calls).

"Walking Steel" is the newsletter of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown which is focused specifically on the struggle against control units. Write: CEML, P.O. Box 578172, Chicago, IL. 60657-8172.

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