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Trouble in Mind: ADX – The Fourth Year

for Skip Martin

"I will hold the candle, til it burns down my arm, I'll keep taking punches until their will grows tired, I will watch the sundown until my eyes go blind, oh I will make my way through one more day." Pearl Jam

I've been locked in ADX for more than three years. When I awake each morning it still feels like I'm being slapped in the face, only harder. My time in ADX was preceded by more than five years of lockdown at Marion Penitentiary, which was preceded by five more years of high security units. It's not all of me you see in these words the rest are indictable as thought crimes against The State.

Previously in PLN I wrote about ADX from STEP 1 the boxcar cells. Physical and emotional isolation. Separation policies. Use of restraints. The attack on one's senses that slowly corrodes, eating away at life and humanity. (See: "Trouble Coming Every Day: ADX -The First Year," PLN , Vol. 8 No. 6).

STEPS 2 through 4 of ADX's insidious, insulting obstacle course came with incremental privileges bandaids after enduring the suffocating boxcar cells. From STEP 1 to 2, I was allowed for the first time in eight years to eat outside of a cell with a small number of other prisoners.

From STEP 2 to 3, I was allowed to walk the 50 feet from my cell to a recreation area without wearing handcuffs with a club-wielding goon at my back.

From STEP 3 to 4, I was immediately impressed by the fact that I ate better. Food, I've noticed, is used as a tool of compliance.

The most distinguishing feature of STEP 4 is being coerced into the "privilege" of working for 46 cents an hour in a Federal Prison Industries program that generated more than $500,000,000 (half a billion) in sales last year. Its very existence violates the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and International Labor Organization Conventions.

Prisoners toil like slaves in sweatshop conditions. Yet if we so much as whisper "union", circulate a petition, call a grievance meeting or strike it's a straight shot back to the boxcar cells. We have few rights our overseers are bound to respect.

As a hate and misery generating facility, ADX can claim success. It produces both in abundance. Moreover, neither the lockdown at Marion or ADX were able to prevent the uprisings that rocked the federal prison system in 1995. They haven't prevented acts of sabotage or the spread of radical ideas. They've not prevented guards from being killed, nor prisoners. What I have seen them do is damage the minds of individuals whose constitution, personality or burden of other problems makes them especially vulnerable to the negative effects of prolonged isolation.

ADX is relatively new, with only a few dozen prisoners having been released or transferred. From what I've seen of Marion and ADX, the former convicts hit the streets running hard. Several were later indicted for armed robbery or homicide. Another was picked up for generic parole violations.

The BOP doesn't like to take responsibility for its control unit handiwork. Now when an ADX prisoner is within a few months of his release date, he's quietly transferred to another prison so technically he doesn't hit the street directly from ADX.

Violent confrontations between prisoners have steadily increased through each year. I'm still picking up birdshot from the last time the guards cut loose. It's the nature of the ADX beast to inflame, antagonize, confuse and generate animosity. Add the exploitable issue of racism and you have a prescription for continual turmoil and hostility.

Administrators and guards are master manipulators in an environment where they have paramount control over cell/unit assignments, recreation schedules, inmate files, food, sick call, mail, etc. The prevailing product is hate. Hatred of police. Hatred of other prisoners. Self-hatred. It's got payback tagged all over it.

Yet, for all the infighting within the walls of repression, there are also signs that ADX may graduate those whose anger and consciousness is sharpened to a razor's edge. Those who take their own training and studies seriously. Those who reject the criminal mentality in favor of a more radical, politically-oriented agenda which will be carried to other prisons and eventually back home.

The largest representative group of prisoners at ADX is not the three or four high-profile cases focused on by the media. It is those predominantly black, predominantly young, predominantly poor brothers dragooned to ADX following the October 1995 "crack riots" the most widespread uprising in federal prison history [See: "Federal Prisons Erupt," PLN , Vol. 7, No. 1]. They are here for acts of resistance against a fundamentally unfair, repressive and racist criminal justice system as reflected in part by the "crack laws".

Their actions in the October '95 uprising underscored time/sentencing as a major issue, a departure from more common prison disturbances that erupt in protest of prison conditions. Their potential to ignite further political resistance among prisoners was swiftly acted upon by the BOP with disciplinary charges and transfers to ADX/Marion.

I've seen no evidence that any outside organizations provided support to these prisoners. Therefore, most of them remain politically as well as physically isolated.

By far, the largest and most violent organized gang in ADX is the guards and their honchos in the administration. They are manipulative, abusive, and hair-trigger violent especially when formed into Special Operation Response Teams (SORT). Among other incidents, the SORT (i.e. goon) squads suited up to assault prisoners brought in from the "crack riots" (a common form of "Welcome Wagon"). With a nod from the administration they strut around here in a provocative manner wearing T-shirts emblazoned with: "The Final Choice" (with a graphic depicting a goon squad charging a cell); "The Legacy Continues Alcatraz, Marion, ADX"; and "ADX -ALCATRAZ OF THE ROCKIES".

They embrace a sordid history of human rights abuses.

The essence of ADX is boiled down in its segregation unit. It reeks of madness. During one 30 day period when I was there, the guards organized into assault squads and attacked several handcuffed prisoners. One prisoner was placed in 4-point restraints (all of the bunks in seg are equipped with metal rings for that purpose).

If they think you're "acting up" in seg, they strip you down to issue a jumpsuit, underwear, canvas slippers and minimum hygiene supplies. You can't even keep the letters you receive.

Mental instability and extreme frustration ooze out of the seg unit in the form of continual screaming and relentless banging on anything that will produce noise. Others quietly withdraw to the shadows within themselves; they appear only during the mandatory 14 day cell changes (a cell change every 14 days, yet another form of calculated harassment).

In STEP 1 I was with three men who are now dead. Regarding the death of Skip Martin, ADX was clearly negligent to his medical needs. As his pain increased, Skip assembled a trail of documentation that shows how ADX let a small cancerous tumor on his leg go untreated. That wasn't enough to save him. He needed medical treatment.

When Skip's tumor swelled to the size of a softball they were giving him anti-inflammation pills and assuring him he'd be transferred to a BOP medical facility. They lied, delayed, and by the time he was transferred he was down to the last two months of his life.

Mass media continue to depict prisoners as demons, and ADX as holding the "worst of the worst". They define the parameters within which issues of crime and punishment are presented to the public. They create the language and definitions. A kid steals a TV and winds up in a Louisiana juvenile prison getting his head and anus ripped apart the owner of the TV is a victim while the kid is a predator and criminal. If that isn't skewed enough, we're steadily propagandized to idolize the corruption and criminality of the wealthy and powerful.

There is a cost to being enslaved. And there is a cost to be the boss. There's also a cost for indifference. The primary aim of prisons like ADX is to crush the human spirit. It's the logic of corrections that an incapacitated prisoner is not a management problem. The fundamental flow of that logic was exposed when two guards were killed in Marion's control unit. The response of the BOP? They brought in a mob of guards from other prisons who beat down Marion prisoners from cell to cell and subjected them to anal probes. What goes through the mind of a man who was sexually or physically abused as a child and then finds himself chained and shackled with a guard's finger forced up his rectum?

The logic of incapacitation and submission demands that prisoners withhold their violence and anti-social behavior storing it up until they crack, die, or hit the streets.

We see in these control unit prisons a reflection of society's degeneration into the heart of darkness, with its moral quagmire rooted in classism and racism.

The gap between rich and poor the widest of all industrialized countries is being filled with penitentiaries.

People at the bottom of society too often try to mimic the values of those responsible for their oppression. Americans are noted for their lack of political consciousness. They have bought into the prison system (in some cases literally) with the same mindset they buy sweatshop shoes and clothing. Changing this mindset is the major challenge facing community activists.

And it is a major challenge. About three decades ago as an organizer with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I encountered a startling realization: most Americans didn't care about a million and a half Vietnamese people slaughtered under a hailstorm of u.s. bombs and bullets (the overwhelming majority were deaths of civilians). Americans didn't seriously awaken until both the draft and consequent u.s. casualties were expanded. What caught their attention was body bags and broken bodies finding their way back to suburbia with alarming frequency.

We're headed down that same road with the casualties of the so-called wars on crime and drugs, criminalization of poverty, and blatant racism which dictates that a black male has greater than a 1-in-4 chance of going to prison in his lifetime. The path of more wasted lives and misspent funds, of false promises and malevolent recidivism.

The masters of this war label us the "worst of the worst". But historically such labels have been used by the privileged to characterize those who buck the system: Native American warriors, resisters of slavery, immigrants, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, rebellious youth, militant activists, communists .... They labeled the Vietnamese as "gooks", "dinks" and "slopes".... They use language like a strip search and parade us naked down the street of public misperception

During the height of the anti-apartheid struggle, the African National Congress issued a Call to the People! Make apartheid unworkable. With considerable commitment and sacrifice, they did precisely that.

We have the potential power within us to make the entire Amerikan Gulag unworkable as an instrument of class and racist oppression. The system can't operate without the participation and compliance of prisoners. It can't function without public mandate and funds.

Although that dawn is still beyond our reach, we can make great strides by working to increase awareness of our common struggle and develop an unbreakable solidarity:

1) Families and friends of prisoners hold the key to building a larger, more expansive movement with deeper roots. As black and Latino people are more disproportionately and negatively effected by prisons, they need to be a larger part of the resistance. The BOP/DOCs have considerable success recruiting guards among blacks, Latinos and women. That we're not even close to matching their numbers is a fundamental weakness that need be overcome.

2) There's been positive movement in the development of organization and networks focusing on killer cops and police brutality. There is common cause here that should lead to a common bond and working relationship.

3) Any organization that is actively anti-racist should also be active in the prison movement.

4) Organized labor should provide proactive support to prison workers. They should be with us, not against us. Support must go well beyond the AFL-CIO's present program on prison labor, to cover issues such as prison unions, minimum wage, health and safety standards, grievance procedures, social security, etc.

5) There are important international agreements such as the Universal Declaration of human Rights, UN Standard Minimum Rules For the Treatment of Prisoners, International Labor Organization conventions and others that offer an additional tool for forging working relationships with others fighting for social and economic justice throughout the world.

6) Educate to Liberate. Free books and literature to prisoners forms a gateway to greater literacy and understanding and increased political consciousness. It builds bridges between outside and in. Please help to supply prisoners with such materials or provide funds to programs that do (e.g. Left Bank Books, Redbook) [Ed. Note: Send a donation to PLN with instruction to earmark it for indigent prisoner subscriptions; that's what it will be used for.]

7) There are many individual prisoners needing and deserving support. Some, like Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier, are relatively well known. I would like to draw your attention to two cases that are little known and are in dire need of support:

A) The Lucasville Five Lucasville Five Bulletin, PO Box 1591, Marion, OH 44301-1591.

B) Khalfani Khaldun (s/n Leonard McQuay) Khalfani Defense Fund, Attn: Sonora McQuay, PO Box 1513, Gary, IN 46402.

These brothers stood firm for prisoners' rights, now they face execution.

Whatever it takes, for as long as it takes.

Contact: December 16th Committee; Box 21073, 2000 SW College; Topeka, KS 66621

[The unedited full-length version of this and other of Ray's writings can be found at]

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