abuse

Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America's Prisons

We throw thousands of men in the hole for the books they read, the company they keep, the beliefs they hold. Here's why.

 

IT'S BEEN SEVEN MONTHS since I've been inside a prison cell. Now I'm back, sort of. The experience is eerily like my dreams, where I am a prisoner in another man's cell. Like the cell I go back to in my sleep, this one is built for solitary confinement. I'm taking intermittent, heaving breaths, like I can't get enough air. This still happens to me from time to time, especially in tight spaces. At a little over 11 by 7 feet, this cell is smaller than any I've ever inhabited. You can't pace in it.

Like in my dreams, I case the space for the means of staying sane. Is there a TV to watch, a book to read, a round object to toss? The pathetic artifacts of this inmate's life remind me of objects that were once everything to me: a stack of books, a handmade chessboard, a few scattered pieces of artwork taped to the concrete, a family photo, large manila envelopes full of letters. I know that these things are his world.

"So when you're in Iran and in solitary confinement," asks my guide, Lieutenant Chris Acosta, "was it different?" His tone makes clear that he believes an Iranian prison to be a bad place.

He's right about that. After being apprehended on the Iran-Iraq border, Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal, and I were held in Evin Prison's isolation ward for political prisoners. Sarah remained there for 13 months, Josh and I for 26 months. We were held incommunicado. We never knew when, or if, we would get out. We didn't go to trial for two years. When we did we had no way to speak to a lawyer and no means of contesting the charges against us, which included espionage. The alleged evidence the court held was "confidential."

What I want to tell Acosta is that no part of my experience—not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners—was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement. What would he say if I told him I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated? Would he believe that I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody?

I want to answer his question—of course my experience was different from those of the men at California's Pelican Bay State Prison—but I'm not sure how to do it. How do you compare, when the difference between one person's stability and another's insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the "dog run" at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn't write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?

"There was a window," I say. I don't quite know how to tell him what I mean by that answer. "Just having that light come in, seeing the light move across the cell, seeing what time of day it was—" Without those windows, I wouldn't have had the sound of ravens, the rare breezes, or the drops of rain that I let wash over my face some nights. My world would have been utterly restricted to my concrete box, to watching the miniature ocean waves I made by sloshing water back and forth in a bottle; to marveling at ants; to calculating the mean, median, and mode of the tick marks on the wall; to talking to myself without realizing it. For hours, days, I fixated on the patch of sunlight cast against my wall through those barred and grated windows. When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back. Its slow creeping against the wall reminded me that the world did in fact turn and that time was something other than the stagnant pool my life was draining into.

When, after five weeks, my knees buckled and I fell to the ground utterly broken, sobbing and rocking to the beat of my heart, it was the patch of sunlight that brought me back.

Here, there are no windows.

 

Remembering Attica Forty Years Later

by Dennis Cunningham, Michael Deutsch & Elizabeth Fink

PRISON LEGAL NEWS     VOL. 22 NO.9      Sept 2011
https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/includes/_public/_issues/pln_2011/09pln11.pdf

This year, September 9 will mark the 40th anniversary of the rebellion at Attica State Prison in upstate New York. As one of the prisoner leaders, L.D. Barkley, announced to the world, the rebellion was “but the sound before the fury of those who are oppressed.”
The sound of Attica was heard loud and clear, but the fury at the time was reserved to the assault force: several hundred violently angry white state police officers and prison guards who carried out the massacre that ended the rebellion on September 13, 1971, with 43 men dead. The fury of the oppressed themselves has been a work in progress since that time.

L.D. was one of many politically aware prisoners in New York and elsewhere who identified with the struggle for liberation world-wide, with consciousness growing out of the civil rights movement, the urban uprisings of the 60s, and the ideology and practices of Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. This consciousness was given voice in the writings of George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver, especially Soledad Brother and Soul on Ice, whose searing indictments of injustice, racism and cruelty in California prisons echoed across the country and inspired resistance.

A manifesto demanding reform had come out of California’s Folsom Prison in 1970 and made its way around the country and into Attica, and the prisoners there had delivered a manifesto of their own to New York state authorities, which was ignored, several months before the rebellion. George Jackson was assassinated at San Quentin on August 21, 1971; a few days later the prisoners at Attica staged a surprise protest at breakfast, during which nobody ate and nobody talked. The guards were stunned and unnerved at the unanimity of the protest action.

A number of the prisoners had been involved in previous, smaller rebellions at the Tombs jail in New York City and the state prison at Auburn. Various chapters of political groups on the outside had formed inside, including the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and the Black Muslims had a large organized contingent at Attica as well as in all other New York state prisons at that time. Political literature flowed freely, and the groups were often able to gather in the exercise yards and at various work sites and other locales in the institution. Grievances against the guards, the administration and the system were many and widely shared, especially on the part of the Black and Latino prisoners who came mainly from New York City, and almost all the rest from other big city environments like Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester.

The entire staff at Attica at the time was white except for one Puerto Rican guard who worked in a watchtower and had no contact with prisoners. The surrounding rural area of Western New York where the guards came from was mostly what some call “up South,” to denote the level of racial antipathy and outright bigotry endemic in the local population, and thus in the prison work force.

At the same time there was a strong and growing belief among the prisoners that they had clear-cut rights under the Constitution that guaranteed fair and decent treatment, as well as freedom from discrimination; that despite years of peaceful petition and advocacy, their rights were largely ignored by the prison administration; and that much of the abuse and brutality they experienced from the white guards was a matter of official policy. Many prisoners had come to feel that something must be done.

* * *

EPD Officer Winkle Falsely Arrests and Injures Young Woman, Wed night March 31, 2010

 

On Wednesday night, March 31, 2010, Officer Justin Winkle of the Eureka Police Department [EPD], once again, went too far and hurt someone.

 

Winkle was one of the cops who killed Martin Cotton II in August of 2007- beat him to death. The other night, he abused a 20 year old woman who was happily skipping down the street. He stopped her and said that he was looking for a woman in particular (a “suspect”). He demanded ID, and when the woman gave him her name, he called it in. The EPD voice on the other end of the police radio informed Winkle that she was not the one- not the person the police were looking for. Nevertheless, Winkle continued to detain the young woman. She told him that she had done nothing wrong and wanted to leave, that there is no law against skipping, and she knew that she had a right to continue on her way.

 

Wise Words from West Denver CopWatch

from their website:  http://westdenvercopwatch.wordpress.com/

....Police are consistently traumatizing and occupying our communities. Something as simple as a video camera, a pen and a pad of paper can significantly help deter the police from violating our community members’ rights.  We collect footage that both holds the police accountable and informs the people of their abuse of power.