Kevin Rashid Johnson and Oregon’s Isolation Torture Unit
This is an update about Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, a prisoner activist and intellectual who is currently in a dire situation in Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon.
As was reported last week, Rashid has been in the midst of a health crisis for almost a month now, which has included periods of severe disorientation. For a time he was refusing to eat or drink; as far as our most recent information if concerned, he is currently accepting liquids but still not eating.
Rashid has spent most of his adult life in prison, and almost all of that time has been spent in various isolation units. This is a direct consequence of his actively resisting abuse from prison guards and their lackeys in the 1990s, and to his continued political writing and exposing conditions in America’s carceral nightmare ever since. A New Afrikan Communist and the founder and Minister of Defense of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party Prison Chapter, Rashid is also a longtime mentor to several activists (and, through his writings, other prisoners) in Virginia, and in recent years has gained national attention as the result of the publication of his book Defying the Tomb, and the use of his artwork in numerous progressive publications. Most notably, Rashid is the artist who designed the drawing used as an emblem during the historic 2011 California prisoners’ hunger strikes, in which over 12,000 participated.
Rashid is a Virginia State prisoner, yet in 2012 the situation at Red Onion State Prison (where he had been held in solitary for years) escalated, with certain guards singling him out for abuse. In one harrowing incident, he was beaten while in handcuffs, which left him with a dislocated shoulder several of his dreadlocks torn out from the roots (as reported here). This attack came shortly after he wrote an article exposing a pain-compliance technique used at Red Onion which involved twisting prisoners’ fingers back, leading in some cases to broken bones. Subsequent to this assault, he was transferred to Wallens Ridge prison where he was informed by guards that he “would not leave the prison walking” (as reported here).
It was following exposure of this set-up, and numerous phone calls and petitions from outside supporters, that Rashid was transferred across the country, to Oregon. This transfer was possible due to an American practice of some States agreeing to imprison people from other States, essentially renting out their prison cells for one another. Upon his arrival in Oregon, Rashid was placed in general population – the first time in almost twenty years that he had not been in solitary confinement. Nevertheless, after just a few months, his work educating other prisoners in revolutionary theory and the principles of solidarity led to his being transferred to Snake River’s Intensive Management Unit, a prison within a prison on the border with Idaho in Oregon’s remote south-east corner.
Outside supporters do not know the precise details that led to Rashid’s current health crisis, periods of disorientation, and refusal to eat food. However, we have no doubts about the general circumstances that led to this situation. Rashid is one of roughly one hundred thousand prisoners in the United States being held in isolation, or solitary confinement. He is also one of a much smaller number who has spent decades of his life in such conditions. This despite the fact that studies have shown that “There is not a single published study of solitary or supermax-like confinement in which nonvoluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days, where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will, that failed to result in negative psychological effects. The damaging effects ranged in severity and included such clinically significant symptoms as hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic depression, and suicidal thoughts and behavior.” (Craig Haney, University of California at Santa Cruz)
In the words of Chad Landrum, a communist prisoner in California’s notorious Pelican Bay SHU:
Social intercourse with others is a necessity to feed, clothe, shelter, and procreate, in order to perpetuate our species. Seeking out the company of others is a genetic drive programmed within our DNA, and in the process of social intercourse, our personalities as distinct individuals is shaped and molded, giving us our identities. To socially isolate and deprive us of social contact is to dehumanize us and destroy our identity as distinct personalities. A life of both social isolation and sensory deprivation is an unnatural state of existence artificially imposed upon a essentially social animal. Such conditions of social isolation amounts to nothing less that “social-extermination”—keeping us alive biologically as living, breathing, empty vessels, devoid of all social content—a socially engineered lobotomy. (Chad Landrum, “The Final Hour”)
Solitary confinement or isolation torture may seem like some barbaric custom imposed out of ignorance or sadism. However, the fact of the matter is that this form of confinement was developed by a multidisciplinary effort of psychologists, neurologists, penal authorities and counterinsurgency experts, all with the goal of developing a form of “clean torture” (i.e. one that does not leave physical marks), the ultimate aim being to break political prisoners and others with beliefs that run contrary to the established order of things. Solitary confinement cannot be understood without appreciating this ultimate goal. In Europe research into isolation torture was pioneered in experiments on political prisoners from groups like the IRA and the Red Army Faction. In the United States, solitary confinement was identified as an important aspect of the government’s behavior modification program targeting prison rebels, and most especially Black prisoners, as early as the 1960s. In 1990, Dr. Mutulu Shakur, Anthony X. Bradshaw, Malik Dinguswa, Terry D. Long, Mark Cook, Adolfo Matos and James Haskins authored a study entitled “A Scientific Form of Genocide” which continues to provide one of the best available political analyses of penal counterinsurgency in the United States. As they noted, in the 1960s and 70s,
the government became concerned about group control inside the prisons, and to address this concern the government resorted to the use of psychological warfare. Consequently, prisoners of strong religious and cultural beliefs who had organized prisoners to resist and those prisoners who put up independent resistance were singled out and met with extreme oppression as the targets of experimental behavior modification.
We submit that Black people were in fact the first experimental targets of group behavior modification. Furthermore, current data and statistics on the prison situation support our contention that Black people inside the state and federal prisons today remain the prime targets of the government’s program.
The authors of this study exposed the fact that as early as 1961,
a social scientist named Dr. Edward Schein presented his ideas on brainwashing at a meeting held in Washington, DC, that was convened by James V. Bennett, then director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons Systems, and was attended by numerous social scientists and prison wardens. Dr. Schein suggested to the wardens that brainwashing techniques were natural for use in their institutions. In his address on the topic “Man Against Man,” he explained that in order to produce marked changes of behavior and/or attitude it is necessary to weaken, undermine, or remove the supports of old patterns of behavior and old attitudes. “Because most of these supports are the face-to-face confirmation of present behavior and attitudes, which are provided by those with whom close emotional ties exist.” This can be done by either “removing the individual physically and preventing any communication with those whom he cares about, or by proving to him that those whom he respects are not worthy of it, and indeed should be actively mistrusted.”
Dr. Schein then provided the group with a list of specific examples as to how to break prisoners, including physically removing them to isolated areas, segregating natural leaders, systematic withholding of mail, undermining emotional support, preventing prisoners from writing mail, and several other similar recommendations. While it can be assumed that Schein’s brainwashing prescription has been modified and perfected over the past fifty years, anyone who takes the time to learn about conditions in America’s isolation wings and supermax units will recognize that the basic approach remains the same.
Prisoners like Rashid, who have shown a willingness not only to resist but also to reach out to other prisoners and develop strategies against their ongoing oppression, are the prime targets of such behavior modification regimes. To once again quote A Scientific Form of Genocide:
The penal system is designed to break minds, to create warped and aberrated personalities, and isolation and sensory deprivation play a most singular and unique role in this.
In general, all prisoners are targeted. Even the staff themselves become victimized by the same system they blindly seek to uphold. You cannot dehumanize people without yourself becoming dehumanized in the process. Yes, all prisoners are targeted, and the harshness of their treatment varies only in degree with the most severe treatment being meted out to those with some political consciousness or to those who are in prison for political offenses. They concentrate extra hard on the political prisoner because the political prisoner has the clearest understanding about the true nature of things, about the exploitative relationships that prevail. Accordingly, they concentrate extra hard on the political prisoner because she or he has the greatest potential for awakening and organizing the rest of the prisoners.
So, isolation and sensory deprivation have always played a unique role in the government’s perennial war on the political prisoner. Through isolation and sensory deprivation, through being confined within a limited space, through the denial of privacy, lack of natural light and fresh air, through the lack of intellectual stimulation, lack of comradeship, through the lack of undisturbed sleep, lack of proper health care, lack of educational and recreational outlets—the lack of these things that contribute to fueling life reduces one to an existence of lifelessness.
This is war. This is a war of attrition and it is designed to reduce prisoners to a state of submission essential for their ideological conversion. That failing, the next option, in deadly sequence, is to reduce the prisoners to a state of psychological incompetence sufficient to neutralize them as efficient, selfdirecting antagonists. That failing, the only option left is to destroy the prisoners, preferably by making them desperate enough to destroy themselves.
The unit where Rashid is being held officially embraces its vocation within the kind of behavior modification/brainwashing program described above. According to an April 17th, 2003 memo, the Snake River Intensive Management Unit “by design is not long-term housing. IMU houses inmates to provide programming toward behavior modification and to prepare them for return to general population.” However, the human rights group Solitary Watch has received the housing history of one IMU inmate who spent 12 years in isolation before being sent to an out-of-state supermax unit. In other words, Rashid faces the equally dehumanizing alternatives of a “behavior modification” program to break him, or else years or decades under conditions designed to produce psychological distress. Such a faustian choice is not a bureaucratic accident or the result of the prison officials’ ignorance, it is the logical and scientifically developed conclusion to Schein’s brainwashing proposals adopted by the Federal BOP in the 1960s.
As such, to deny Oregon and Virginia DOC’s direct responsibility for Rashid’s condition is tantamount to the prison administrators throwing someone into a swimming pool with hungry sharks, and then claiming that it’s the sharks and not them who are responsible for what happens next.
Snake River Correctional Institute is a full day’s drive away from Portland, and Rashid has no established base of supporters in Oregon. When the alert went out last week about his situation, there was a wave of support, in the form of phone calls to the prison and to Oregon DOC officials. This was very useful, and helped to make it clear to the prisoncrats that people are watching, and their actions against Rashid cannot be carried out completely in secret. A lawyer managed to speak to Rashid for over an hour on February 23rd, and ascertained that he is aware of the support and appreciated it, and that his chief problem at the moment is that he does not have easy access to his mail or to his personal belongings, including his books.
According to an Oregon DOC spokesperson, Rashid is only given access to his mail for a few hours each evening as part of a program of “incentivizing to improve behavior” – when asked if this meant that good behavior would be rewarded with more access to his mail and “bad” behavior with more restrictions on it – the answer was “exactly”. So even according to Oregon DOC’s own spokespeople, limiting access to mail is being used as a form of punishment.
The same Oregon DOC spokesperson described the Snake River Intensive Management Unit where Rashid is being held as a place with “different depths of programming”, as “behavior based” and all about (as above) “incentivizing to improve behavior”.
Behavior modification amounts to an assault on a person’s psychological integrity, as their environment and their conditions of life are manipulated in order to mould them into submission. As Rashid himself has described what it is like to me targeted for this kind of brainwashing:
[The IMU is] a housing status that lasts from seven months to indefinitely, during which a prisoner must pass through four levels – which requires that he reveal his every thought to his torturers.
Those housed in IMU who receive rules infractions are automatically placed on level one for a month, which is even more restrictive and extreme in sensory deprivation than DSU housing. And for every infraction he then receives, his level one assignment is extended. Such conditions often put prisoners struggling to maintain their sanity in a catch-22, where coping prompts resisting their torturing confinement, and that very resistance prompts infractions which intensify and prolong that confinement. (“Oregon Prisoners Driven to Suicide by Torture in Solitary Confinement Units”)
Perversely, this kind of abuse is rationalized by Oregon DOC’s spokesperson as a way to minimize the effects of isolation torture. As was explained in a recent phone call to a supporter, “there’s a lot of discussion in Oregon and nationally about the use of isolation or solitary or whatever one wants to call it” and as a result Oregon DOC “made significant changes to our philosophy; we try to limit the use because we know it can have impacts”. The idea being that the IMU will mould prisoners into compliance, and then they won’t have to be kept in isolation!
Already in November, Rashid wrote a report on conditions at the Snake River IMU, in which he related how prisoners were regularly driven to self-destructive behavior as a result of the conditions of severe isolation, bordering on sensory deprivation, that they are forced to suffer. “In 22 years of imprisonment, I have never seen such a consistently high and continuous series of suicide cases,” he wrote.
(Rashid’s report on the Oregon IMU is well worth reading, and provides a much more detailed and specific information than the present article can. It is available on Rashid’s website at rashidmod.com)
Rashid’s recent period of intense distress is clearly a result of the conditions he is being subjected to. In the immediate short term we need to demand that he be transferred out of the IMU and that he be given access to his personal property and mail. Beyond that, we need to demand that units like the IMU be closed down, permanently.
In the meantime, one of the best things people can do is to write to Rashid. Even if you have never written to him before, or if he does not know you and you don’t know what to say, a simple letter or postcard expressing your solidarity and concern for his well-being may be of help. If he is able to receive his mail, such support will constitute a crack in the wall of isolation they have erected around him – and even if they keep his mail from him, they will be aware of the support Rashid enjoys and the attention being paid to his case, and this will hopefully constitute a deterrent to any further abuse.
Rashid can be reached at this address:
Kevin Johnson #19370490
777 Stanton Blvd.
Ontario, OR 97914
Always put a full name (not initials) on the return address; otherwise your letter may be rejected. Similarly, do not write anything you would not want the prisoncrats to see, as it is assumed that all mail is read by guards as a matter of course.
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