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The Fire Inside

October, 1994, marked the eleventh year of collective punishment at the United States penitentiary, Marion. It marked a decade of lockdown, control unit regimes and government lies. No doubt the federal Bureau of Prisons will commemorate the event by rolling out its propaganda wagon, and indulging the public with some contrived fantasy about the lockdown's purpose and effectiveness. Silently, they'll rejoice at the well-orchestrated scam they've pulled off.

In a society that criminalizes poverty and makes racism a redeeming social value, the Bureau of Prisons simply plugs its propaganda arm into a mass media whose corporate ownership serves its own interests. There is significant political capital to be had by scapegoating the disenfranchised and deflecting the public's attention away from the real issues which affect their quality of life.

Marion is the most written about prison in the world. One of the battle lines drawn in October, 1983, was for public opinion. The government is winning this battle hands down. The Bureau of Prisons utilizes a highly effective public relations strategy which revolves around the agitprop slogan "the worst of the worst" to describe Marion prisoners. It is a soundbite which condenses "nigger, spic, white trash, jobless, homeless, useless underclass" into one dehumanizing phrase. Dehumanizing a population with language is a prelude to dehumanizing them with force.

The Bureau of Prison's statement is false, unless the "the worst" refers to rebels, dissenters, revolutionaries, jailhouse lawyers, group members and others whose beliefs and integrity the Bureau of Prisons wants to crush. It is false when one examines who is sent to Marion, and why they're here. Certainly there are exceptions, but those exceptions don't warrant the use of collective punishment. Additionally, I've not met a convicted felon whose misdeeds were in any way comparable to the massive killing of civilians perpetrated by the likes of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, et. al. No one here has been convicted of crimes against humanity in the court of world opinion.

"The worst of the worst" has no meaning outside the realm of propaganda because any prisoner can be sent to Marion at any time, for any reason, without due process of law. In Bureau of Prisons parlance, dissent and rebellion are "management problems" to be suppressed. What it feeds the public is designed to secure support for such schemes.

Effective propaganda diverts people from thinking and acting not only on prison issues, but also on the problems that led to the construction of the American gulag: poverty, racism and injustice stemming from an unbridled capitalism that diminishes the humanity of its victims. Marion is but one more satellite in the ever-expanding concentric circles of oppression and violence that are consuming society. This is good news for prison and related bureaucracies. Instead of being hung out to dry, these parasitic purveyors of misery are relishing their careers, fattening their wallets and passing themselves off as guardians of the sliced white bread culture.

In a recent London Sunday Times article on Marion, a denizen of the local community was quoted as saying that Marion prisoners should be taken out and shot as part of the deficit reduction plan. This citizen comes from the same pool from which the Bureau of Prisons recruits its guards. Bleak economic realities feed such fascist sentiments. Marion's guards are the descendants of once proud coal miners and factory workers--many unionized. But when the mines and plants closed they were left floundering on their own. Their response is to board the nation and state's biggest growth industry--human chattel.

Illinois recently approved construction of another state control unit prison. Before the ink was dry on the legislation, the economically depressed counties of southern Illinois were unabashedly begging for the prison to be located on their turf. One state legislator stated there was so much unemployment in his county, "it would be a crime" not to locate the prison there. A crime not to build a control unit prison in an area already saturated with them. "Worst of the worst" means nothing to these people. All they want are warm bodies to feed on. They don't much care where they come from.

One of the most significant reverberations of the Marion lockdown is the subsequent proliferation of control unit prisons throughout the country, thirty eight, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report, which also documents the inherent abuses. This proliferation is part and parcel of the rapid expansion of the entire prison system. Marion was the flagship, but no longer the exception.

Even a relatively small state like Maine has opened a control unit for 100 prisoners at an initial cost of $16 million. Already the state is seeking to double the size of the prison. Maine's situation somewhat reflects what's happening nationwide. The state spent money it could not afford to build a control unit prison it doesn't need. Concurrently, the state cut rehab programs at the Youth Reformatory and slashed programs to Aid to Families with Dependent Children ($418 a month for a parent with 2 children). By gouging the needs of children, the state insured a steady supply of youthful offenders to fill its control unit and other cells well into the next generation. New York and Florida have come up with their own creative fraud by diverting funds initially allocated for the homeless and social welfare programs, to fund prison construction and operations.

Propaganda that promotes control units as effective against crime--in and out of prison--perpetrates a cruel hoax on an unsuspecting and too often gullible public. Like most government bureaucracies, the Bureau of Prisons hides the cost overruns from a public who will foot the bill. In real terms, "more bang for the buck" is quickly eroding their false sense of security.

When men and women are locked in small cells 22-23 hours a day, with little human contact, in a violent environment devoid of respect for the human spirit, there is a steep cost not limited to prisoners or dollars. Certainly the prisoners suffer. And much of it not played out in violent prison incidents is internalized in an organic time capsule. Eventually, they carry the years of abuse and neglect right on through their release dates, which is when it's all brought home. A prisoner doesn't separate him/herself from the prison experience anymore than soldiers separate themselves from the wars they live through. Neither does the media, which puts its own spin on the term "ex-convict" to mean depraved and violent.

If prisoners never returned to their neighborhoods and communities--or anyone else's--the public might take some perverted comfort in never seeing them again. But this doesn't happen. Even the most extensive prison system in the world can't keep millions of people locked up forever. While some former prisoners salvage their lives and spare others--entirely through their own efforts--the majority proceed to engage in both self-destructive behavior and crime aimed at the lives and property of others. Life's agenda is reduced primarily to one more paycheck or payback.

Those who become victimized by the alumni of America's prisons need ask themselves the following: will the trillions spent on prison hardware and subsidizing the welfare payments of prisoncrats buy back the lost lives of those they thought they were protecting with their tax dollars? It won't. The funds that could have been invested in human services and community development were pissed away down bottomless sinkholes of violence, heartache and the illusion that repression will provide security.

The misnamed criminal justice system churns out an appalling casualty rate. There are now almost one million children under the age of 18 who have one or both parents in prison. One in four young black men is in prison or under police "supervision." More Latinos than ever before are locked up. More women and children. More of everyone whose lives are plagued by poverty and racism. The proliferation of control unit prisons represents one response of wealth and power to the agony of the oppressed.

Early in the lockdown, Marion prisoners put up a stiff resistance. Whether in this prison or elsewhere, the majority have been subjected to police assaults, beatings, gas, clubs, prolonged restraints, drugs, anal probes, stun guns, humiliations, degradations, harassment, psychological rape and mistreatment of all sorts.

The U.S. calls this "torture" when referring to other governments. It's not like we haven't been there. Little positive has come of it other than maintaining our personal integrity. Earlier in the lockdown we had important outside support. Now that most of this support has worn out, a cloud of pessimism, if not cynicism, descends over the entombed.

During the 11year reign of the Marion lockdown, prisoners have attempted to redress their grievances through the federal courts. They got nothing but a judge's spiteful decision that sordid and horrid conditions do not violate constitutional rights. The many prisoners who testified about beatings and other rights violations were dismissed as liars (courts tend to credit prisoners' testimony only when they testify for the government). Congressional subcommittee hearings did little besides enter Marion's devastation into the public record.

This isn't to say that judicial and legislative efforts should be abandoned. There is pending litigation by control unit prisoners in other districts that may produce different results. And various state legislatures may respond differently to their constituents' concerns. Yet given the prevailing political climate and the entrenchment of the Marion model, little is likely to come from this approach other than a belated civics lesson.

The Bureau of Prisons cannot continuously apply heat to Marion without allowing some steam to escape, unless they want the place to blow up. The Bureau of Prisons' efforts to contain organized resistance and picking off individual efforts is rooted primarily in the control unit regimen: isolation, separation, controlled movement in restraints, limited communication and the selective use of violence.

But there is more. The answer also lies in the Bureau of Prisons' arbitrary use of control mechanisms that begin with who is sent to Marion, and why they're singled out. The process continues more arbitrarily--in determining who leaves Marion, and when. Clear conduct (no disciplinary infractions) alone will not get a prisoner out of Marion. Some will leave in the minimum 2 1/2 years; some in 5 or 10; some appear branded not to leave at all. Some turnover is necessary because the 375 capacity must have room to warehouse new arrivals, including recidivists.

No one can fault a prisoner for wanting to be on that bus out of Marion. However, the emphasis on catching that bus in the 2 1/2 year minimum has evolved into the most viable method for the majority of prisoners to escape Marion's clutches. In turn, this has led to individual programming rather than a more collective effort to end the lockdown. The lack of outside support reinforces the view that each of us is on his own.

As the political resources for prisoners base waned, the federal government has continued to beef up its repressive capacity. A new control unit prison is being built in Florence, CO, which will replace Marion in 1994. The addition of 200 cells over Marion's capacity underscores the failure of Marion's lockdown to reduce violence and rebellion in the federal prison system and states which tap into it. Florence's 550 permanently locked down cells await those who will continue to refuse and resist, as well as those caught up in the spiral of crime that prisons produce. Conditions at Florence promise to be considerably worse with more emphasis placed on deeper isolation.

It's not easy to chart a future course from inside. Doing time in these joints is like walking a mine field. The Florence prison will present new challenges and other control units are cutting their teeth. We know from Attica, Lucasville, and a hundred other rebellions, both organized and spontaneous, that stiff resistance will continue. Some of it will be violent. We also know that as captive slaves we are extremely vulnerable to offensive violence and retribution by the guards. For this reason, some matters are best left to clandestine maneuvers. What's clear to me now and has been since I first did time in '69-71 is that no matter how much litigation and legislation is filed and defiled the road to building a prisoners' movement is paved with solidarity. Irrespective of individual differences and group affiliations, we all have a common bond on which to stand together. Solidarity is our greatest weapon, bar none. Additionally, outside support is critical. A necessary lifeline involves family, friends, professionals, and political activists. We urgently need a stronger voice. And everyone--inside and out of prison walls--can help build it.

Ultimately, control units like Marion must be shut down. But in the meantime, attitudes with a political consciousness; adoption and application of the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of Prisoners; outside observers -- taken together, can open a new front in the struggle for justice.

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