GREETINGS TO YOU on International Women's Day ! I was pleased to receive your letter and appreciate the kind words. It was very nice of you to write. It was also encouraging to hear the Berkshire Forum continues on. Every progressive voice is important.
I'M SURE THE RESPECTED PANELISTS at the Forum will address a range of human rights issues. Through my own life experiences, I have come to place supreme value on human rights and have committed a good deal of my life to the struggle for social justice. My work has most often taken the form organizer or combatant. I don't consider myself much of a writer.
I WOULD, however, like to take this opportunity to share with you some observations about the control unit prison at Marion, Illinois. I have monitored conditions here for many years and they have monopolized my life since they arrived, shortly after the conclusion of the Sedition trial. There's a story here that needs to be told.
MARION IS A CONTROL UNIT PRISON. Its regimen is enforced through physical brutality, deprivation, and psychological torture. I do not overstate the situation and there are thousands of pages of documented evidence which attests to the suffering and rights violations in Marion.
CONTROL UNIT POLICIES are based on isolation, separation, and controlled movement. Since the 1983 guard riot in which hundreds of prisoners were brutalized, Marion has been "locked down". We are confined to solitary cells, 22 1/2 a day. If I stand at the bars of my cell, I can see approximately 50 feet down-range--to another wall.
THERE EXISTS a total separation of cell blocks. Prisoners in one cell block have no contact with prisoners in the other area. Puerto Rican patriot Oscar Lopez Rivera is 200 feet from me but I never see him.
EACH HALF of a cell block has two tiers of cells. But prisoners on one tier are never let out of their cells with prisoners from the other tier. Our primary "recreation" is to be let out onto the corridor in front of our cells for 1 1/2 hours with nothing to avail ourselves of. There is no exercise equipment, no work for the laborer, nothing to engage the intellect. The maximum number of prisoners allowed out of their cells at one time is 9, but usually does not exceed 7-8. Weather permitting, we are allowed outside into a yard, once a week, for 2 hours. The perimeter of Marion makes the Berlin Wall look like a minor obstacle.
SOCIALIZING among prisoners has been effectively barred.
INTEGRAL TO MARION'S regimen is the use of "restraints." Guards never get near a prisoner unless separated by a barrier or the prisoner is in restraints, either handcuffed behind the back or in handcuffs and leg irons. A prisoner does not move anywhere in this prison unless he is in restraints, even if the move is 100 feet to the guards' office or a mere 30 feet to another cell. Here's how it works: Guards will approach your cell door. You must turn away from them and back up to the door, extending your arms behind you and through an opening in the door. Handcuffs are placed on your wrists. The door is then opened and a guard immediately grabs you by the chain links of the handcuffs. (Through the entire course of the movement, and until you are on the other side of a barrier, he will not let go.) You back out of the cell. Your back must always be towards the guard. You are pat searched. From that moment on, you move and stop on command. The procedure is reversed and repeated at each destination and upon return to your cell. When you are returned to your cell, you are frequently pat searched.
ALL GUARDS CARRY 3-foot clubs with steel balls on each end. The steel allows them to separate your ribs and cause internal injuries without breaking bone. The club-wielding guards are an omnipresent reminder that you will be beaten senseless unless you go along with the program.
WHEN CLUBS FAIL to do the job, prisoners have been chained to concrete slabs (for days on end!) to contemplate their rebelliousness. Prisoners have also been forcibly injected with drugs. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court approved the forcible use of psychotropic drugs on prisoners without their consent or due process protection. This merely put a high-level stamp of approval on what has been an ongoing practice in prisons. While in the segregation unit at MCC/New York I personally witnessed several prisoners forcibly strapped into their bunks and injected with tranquilizers.
ADDING TO THE VIOLENCE and humiliation directed towards the Marion prisoners is the selective use of "anal probes". This has been likened by prisoners to anal rape. Guards will attack a prisoner in restraints, remove his clothes, and one of them will shove their fingers in the prisoner's anus.
HEALTH CARE is a major grievance of the prisoners, and topping this category is the toxic water supply from which we are forced to drink. Marion draws its water from Crab Orchard lake, an area which has one of the most serious PCB toxic waste problems in the country. The lake itself has been designated to receive EPA Superfund cleanup money. In addition to PCB toxins, it has been determined that the area also contains other hazardous wastes, such as lead and cadmium. At one time, this lake was the backup source of drinking water for the town of Marion until disclosure of the contamination led the town to seek an alternative source. Although a class action suit has been filed on behalf of the prisoners, the bureau of prisons has refused to allow a lawyer for the prisoners a sample for testing. The men here have reported a variety of health problems, including rashes and subcutaneous lumps, but are denied health consultations and treatment. This is one of the many human rights violations which take place at Marion every day.
NONE OF THE MARION BROTHERS believes the courts imposed a death sentence on us.
IN THE SPRING OF 1989, there was an outbreak of intestinal parasites, which can be contracted by ingestion of fecally-contaminated water. The bureau of prisons has said it cannot determine the source of the outbreak.
IN THE FALL OF 1989, over 100 prisoners became violently ill with what they suspected was food poisoning. Prison medical workers made no attempt to diagnose or treat the problem.
HEALTH CARE AT MARION is in the same realm as due process for alleged disciplinary infractions. It exists only for whatever purposes the administration wants it to serve.
EVERY DAY the Marion Brothers must deal with intense isolation and the ongoing psychological assaults against us. There is no human touch in Marion and the prison makes no concession to the human spirit. Marion exists to break the will of prisoners who refuse to grovel at the feet of our self-anointed masters.
MARION IS the only federal prison in the country which does not allow contact visits. Visitors are separated from prisoners by a Plexiglas barrier and must speak through monitored phone receivers. As long as I am here, I will never be allowed to touch my children. Just how long you remain in Marion is entirely up to the discretion of the bureau of prisons. Some men have been here 12 years.
WE MUST EAT and defecate in our cells. Unlike other prisons, the cells here have been stripped of their furnishings. In their place is a concrete block on which has been placed a plastic mattress. It has four iron rings embedded in it to allow the guards to chain, naked and spread-eagled, those who arouse their ire. Three small concrete slabs protruding from the wall round out the decor. In a tribute to 20th century penology, Marion is the only federal prison which installs a small television in each cell. Its purpose is to pacify and keep the demons of insanity at bay. The bureau of prisons doesn't necessarily want to drive the prisoners insane. It wants them to submit.
how much of our living, breathing humanity will be ground into dust....
IN KEEPING with the racist nature of the prison system, two-thirds of Marion prisoners are Third World--Black, Latino, Native American. 'The overwhelming majority of the guards are white.
THERE ARE no religious services and the chapel stands idle.
I SAID there was no work in Marion and for the large majority of us that is true. However, there is one exception. Before a prisoner can be transferred to another prison, he must prove he is worthy by some ambiguous standard set down by administrators. This includes a year's stay in the "pre-transfer" cell block (B unit), in which you are assigned a production job. What you produce is materiel (wire and cable) for the United States military.
MARION IS THE MOST maximum security prison in the United States. It is the government's disciplinary prison and holds both federal and state prisoners. Since its inception as a control unit prison, many inside organizers and political prisoners have been transferred here. I have never been in a federal prison before, yet I was sent to Marion directly from court following my acquittal of seditious conspiracy. I was sent here because of my political beliefs, and what the government calls my political associations. Yet the Department of Justice continues to propagate the lie that only the most serious of disciplinary violations gets a prisoner transferred to Marion. The bureau of prisons can at any time and without justifiable cause change a prisoner's security classification to cover their transfer to Marion.
MARION HAS AN EVIL REPUTATION. It is used to intimidate tens of thousands of other prisoners, any of whom could be transferred here at a moment's notice. The bureau of prisons has deliberately created a place of real suffering, which suffocates both mind and body. It is designed to create prisoners who are the walking wounded, to strike fear in any or all who would contemplate resistance to the system.
ONE OF THE MANY WARDENS who have served a tour of duty at Marion publicly stated, "the purpose of Marion is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and society at large." Recalcitrant prisoners, organizers, rights advocates, and political prisoners make good test subjects according to Marion policy. It is our belief systems that come under attack from Marion's brainwashing schemes ("to force a person to reject old beliefs and accept new ones by subjecting them to great mental pressure").
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL, IN A DEPARTURE from its usual lack of interest in the U.S. prison system, has condemned Marion for violating many of the United Nations' Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has described conditions at Marion as "sordid, horrible, and ghastly." A Congressional subcommittee has released reports on human rights violations at Marion. But after all is said, nothing is done to change life at Marion. every day, the assault on our humanity continues.
OUR OPPRESSORS try to justify their policies by categorizing the Marion Brothers as "the worst of the worst", as if we were just so much human garbage. This propaganda ploy has been used for as long as any of us can remember. I saw it used during the Viet Nam War. It was a thinly-veiled cover to justify the government's own criminal actions, that they may continue unfettered with their exploitation and atrocities.
UNLIKE THE CAMPAIGN to close the Lexington Control Unit for Women, the struggle of the Marion Brothers has received only marginal support among progressive people. Though the U.S. prison population has more than doubled since the early '70's, with the number of Third World prisoners reaching alarming proportions, most of the Left ignores the issue. They fail to see prisons and the police as the States' first line of defense in the class war.
THE ISSUE OF POLITICAL PRISONERS has long since ceased to be an important issue in this country. Somehow, those of us imprisoned and mistreated because of our political commitment, do not merit enough respect from Progressives to gain their support and protection. We are attacked by the government and ignored by those who should be our natural allies. If such a view continues to propagate--along with control units themselves--human rights - abuses in U.S. prisons and in other aspects of our society will remain unchallenged on the altar of U.S. exceptionalism.
BETTY, I recently read a book by STARHAWK a witch and healer. She says: "No matter how strong we become, how many inner demons we conquer, how many insights we gain, we are ultimately confirming our own isolation unless our journey is grounded in a relationship with living, breathing human beings."
CONDITIONS AT MARION are calculated to sever the relationships we have with our loved ones, people from our communities, and political movements. Amnesty International's report on Marion stated that policies here are designed to break the defiant spirit and alter the behavior of prisoners. It goes on to say that we are continually subjected to sensory and psychological deprivation, and stripped of our individual identities in a process called "mortification and depersonalization."
STARHAWKs view is an affirmation of life and belief in human potential. Marion is a negation of this. Conditions here force us into an intense fight for survival, but how much of our living, breathing humanity will be ground into dust within isolation cells and by the very struggle it takes to survive these conditions? Time will tell, but at the moment, the prognosis doesn't look good.
United States Penitentiary Marion, March 8, 1990
Ray Luc Levasseur, 10376-016, PO Box 150160, USP Atlanta, Atlanta, GA 30315