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Third Annual NCSCUP Conference

The National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons (NCSCUP) held its third annual conference on the weekend of November 8-10 (1996) at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago. More than fifty members of NCSCUP attended. The purpose of the conference was to strategize and brainstorm about what measures should be taken to halt the rapid expansion of control unit prisons, and shut down the units that already exist.

The conference began with an assessment of the previous year's events. One of NCSCUP's primary projects was the coordination of six different "People's Hearings" on control unit prisons. The hearings took place in Philadelphia, Denver, Cleveland, Youngstown, San Francisco and Chicago, and all were reportedly a success. Testimony from control unit (CU) prisoners was given--often read by their friends or loved onesand prisoners' rights activists gave presentations on such topics as: the political purpose of control unit prisons, control unit proliferation, political prisoners, the prison-industrial complex, the genocidal effects of the war on drugs, and the increasing incarceration rates of women. Also reported on were actions such as the very successful demonstrations against the Wabash Valley and Westville control units in Indiana.

Discussed at length at the conference were the developments regarding of the use of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA--42 USC 1997, et seq.) against the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center (MCAC) Supermax by the federal Department of Justice (DOJ). In May and June of 1995, the DOJ conducted on-site visits at MCAC. On May 1, 1996, the DOJ issued a "Notice of Findings," in which it cited unconstitutional conditions at MCAC, with regards to: inadequate medical and mental health care, insufficient exercise opportunities, indefinite segregation and excessive use of force.

In June, 1996, Maryland's Attorney General responded to the DOJ report by stating that the MCAC was operating within institutional requirements. A Federal vs. State government show-down would be likely if either had any gumption. The ways things stand now it seems that the DOJ will back down first.

NCSCUP members expressed interest in whether it was worth the time and energy to begin a campaign to demand that the DOJ investigate other state control units. The fact that the federal government itself--the DOJ itself--operates such human rights disasters as USP Marion and ADX Florence caused many NCSCUP members to question the desirability of petitioning the DOJ to take further CRIPA action.

Prisoners have a strong voice in NCSCUP. As Bonnie Kerness, the National Coordinator of NCSCUP put it: "Almost every agenda has something to do with prisoner input." Prisoners played an important role in the conference by submitting critiques of NCSCUP and suggestions for discussion.

One of the letters of suggestions and recommendations circulated and discussed at the meeting was by anti-imperialist political prisoner Bill Dunne, who is currently indefinitely confined in Marion. Dunne's letter suggested, among other things, that NCSCUP give attention to the abysmal lack of financially attainable educational programs for control unit (and all other) prisoners. A member of California Prison Focus concurred; state prison officials 'are really getting off the hook too easily," by not being challenged on their failure to provide opportunities for prisoners' to improve themselves. Work will be undertaken in conjunction with state education officers and academics to make more educational opportunities available to control unit prisoners.

NCSCUP took on several projects for 1997. A "survival manual" for CU prisoners is in the works. It will contain suggestions from mental health workers and counselors on activities extreme isolation prisoners can do to stay focused, exercises that can be done in the small cells, and advice from CU prisoners themselves on how they have stayed relatively healthy and sane throughout the term of their confinement.

A youth institute will be held in Chicago this summer. The program is to be aimed at teaching organizing skills to high school and college students, and possibly the friends and families of prisoners. The purpose of the program--in the words Nancy Kurshan, of the Committee to End to Marion Lockdown (CEML)--is to "help deal with some of the isolation people feel by bringing together activists from many places and ... [creating a] space for people who might ordinarily be too busy to really read, think and analyze, in order to develop a deeper understanding of the role of criminal justice issues in our current society."

Some instructors prominent within the prison movement have already signed on, such as Dr. Corey Weinstein of CA Prison Focus, Bonnie Kerness (who is also the Assoc. Director of the New Jersey American Friends Service Committee), and members of the CEML. Some of the prisoners' rights student organizers who have emerged in the last few years may also speak on their organizing experiences in the university setting.

Accompanying the conference was the release of a 50-plus page report by the Monitoring Project of the NCSCUP, which detailed control unit proliferation. The report found that 40 states--as well as the District of Columbia and the BOP-currently have at least one CU prison. Many have more, and a fair number of states have control units for both men and women. Two states which don't yet have CUs in their state prison systems--Illinois and Wisconsin--are building large "Supermax" facilities, at a cost of $60 and $90 million respectively. Ohio, which already has multiple isolation units, is also building a new 500-bed Supermax. The initial price-tag was $65 million, though the project is already running over budget. The allotted annual payroll of the new Ohio facility is $14 million.

The NCSCUP meeting and Monitoring Project's report make it clear that the need for organized resistance to the spreading use of extended isolation is increasingly urgent. Control units are not only proliferating, but the conditions inside these units are being constantly refined and perfected: more isolation, less physical brutality, more precise control. This refinement process applies not only to a harshening of a CU conditions, but an expansion of the situations in which they are used.

Two of the most recent and disturbing manifestations of this process are reported lockdown/sensory deprivation units in both the Cook County Jail in Chicago--where prisoners haven't even been convicted yet--and in at least one juvenile correctional facility in New Jersey. Every day the isolation model becomes more deeply embedded in the U.S. penal system. The ramifications are sinister and ominous.

Copies of NCSCUP's "Interim Report" on control unit prisons are available from: the Rocky Mountain Peace Center's Prisoners Rights Project, P.O. Box 1156, Boulder, CO, 80306, for five dollars postage and copying expenses. Personal accounts by control unit prisoners and suggestion on how to survive control unit confinement can be sent to: H. Teter, CA Prison Focus, 2489 Mission St., #28, San Francisco, CA 94110. Inquiries regarding becoming a control unit monitor in your state can be sent to: Bonnie Kerness, American Friends Service Committee, Criminal Justice Program, 972 Broad St., 6th Floor, Newark, NJ, 07102.

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