Bonnie Kerness, Program Director

AFSC Prison Watch Program

Poverty Awareness Week

Quinnipiac Law School

April 20, 2017


My early observations of oppression in this country began when I was 12 watching television and seeing children of African descent my age in the South being hosed by police and bitten by dogs for trying to go to school. When I was 13, Emmet Till was  murdered. He was 14. Those moments forever changed me. I spent ten years in the civil rights movement, then moved north and began working with the American Friends Service Committee, the social action arm of the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. I serve as a human rights advocate on behalf of men, women and children in prison throughout the US, coordinating Prison Watch for the AFSC in Newark. Many of the men, women and children that I take testimony from call their imprisonment “the war at home”.

Every part of the US criminal justice system falls most heavily on the poor and people of color, including the fact that slavery is mandated and institutionalized in prisons by the 13th Amendment of the US constitution, which reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime shall exist within the US …..”. While most of us don’t give this amendment a second thought, it is at the core of how the labor of slaves was transformed into what people in prison call neo-slavery. The US didn’t abolish slavery. It simply transferred it into prisons. The use of prison labor occurs throughout the country and is an integral part of the “Prison Industrial Complex”.  In New Jersey, women are paid 28 cents an hour to sew the orange jumpsuits and khaki uniforms all 2200 prisoners in the state are forced to wear. They also upholster furniture for state offices and keep the grounds for that same 28 cents per hour. Involuntary forced labor in prisons is every day real for the more than 2 million men and women.

African descended, Latino and Aboriginal young people tell us that the police feel like an occupation army in their communities. Look at what’s happened with the unconscionable police murders of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tony Robinson, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray Walter L. Scott, Eric Harris, Sandra Bland, Jamar O’Neal Clark, Ariel Denkins and hundreds of others, including Jose Elena Rodriguez. Jose was a 16 year old who was shot by Border Patrol through the wall from the US into Nogales, Mexico, while standing in front of his home. We feel the total and justified frustration and anger at the system in communities of color. The rebellions and demonstrations are not just about these particular young people dying at the hands of law enforcement, but about all those who have received the same racially toxic treatment for hundreds of years. In Princeton, NJ, the police are peacekeepers. In Newark young people speak of a militarized occupation army. They tell us of school and foster care systems being used to feed them into youth detention, jails and prisons where their bodies are suddenly worth a fortune. What they are clearly reflecting is the poverty to prison pipeline that dominates this country.

People have said to me that the criminal justice system doesn’t work. I’ve come to believe exactly the opposite – that it works perfectly, just as slavery did, as a matter of economic and political policy. How is it that a 15 year old in Newark, who the country labels worthless to the economy, who has no hope of getting a job or affording college –   suddenly generates 90 thousand dollars a year once trapped in the criminal legal system. The expansion of the systems – bail, the court, police, prisons, parole, probation – has resulted in an enormous bureaucracy which has been a boon to everyone from law enforcement, judges, administrators, guards, social workers, and secretaries, to architects, food and other service vendors – all with one thing in common – a pay check earned by keeping human beings in cages. The criminalization of poverty is a lucrative business and we have replaced the social safety net with a dragnet.

There is no contradiction that prisons are both hugely expensive and very profitable. Just like with military spending, the cost is public and the profits are private. Privatization in the Prison Industrial Complex includes companies which run prisons for profit while at the same time reaping profits from forced labor. One explosion of private industry is the partnering of Corrections Corporation of America with the federal government to detain close to 1 million unauthorized people. Given the history of the last eight years, and the current climate concerning unauthorized people, we are beginning to recognize largely private immigrant detention system as a shadow prison system. Using public monies to enrich private citizens is the history of capitalism at its most exploitive.

I want to share some testimonies with you which reflect the of letters and calls that the AFSC receives daily.

One young girl said, “I was 12 so they put me in isolation. I heard children screaming. I saw boys get strung out on meds. They make you take sleeping stuff in needles. They used pepper spray on this girl who was fighting directly in her mouth and she couldn’t breathe. They kept hitting her. We told them that she had asthma, but they wouldn’t listen”.  Another said, I went in when I was 14 and they have what they call the hole. You get a shower once a week and there is no heat”.

The US spends less than any other industrialized nation on nurturing its children. At least 43 states have passed laws making it easier for children to be tried as adults. We can’t escape the similarities with chattel slavery here as well. Not only are these mostly black and brown children taken from their families, they lose any chance for a future of their own choosing.

The voices of adult prisoners are haunting:  One testimony from a social worker reported that “John was directed to leave the isolation strip cell and a urine soaked pillowcase was placed over his head like a hood. He was walked shackled to a different cell where he was placed in a device called the chair where he was kept for over 30 hours being forced to urinate and defecate on his own hands which were tucked under him”.

Another prisoner reports being put in something called a cuff strap, “with the CO having me in a choke hold position, slammed my face and forehead into the ground. He then struck me forcibly in the testicles. After spraying me, I was placed in a cell without being given a shower to wash off with”.

Women who contact the AFSC describe conditions of confinement which include enduring sexual abuse by staff with one woman saying, “I am tired of being gynaecologically examined every time I’m searched. That was not part of my sentence to perform oral sex with officers”. One woman wrote “the guard sprayed me with pepper spray because I wouldn’t take my clothes off in front of five male guards. They carried me to my isolation cell, laid me down on the bed and took my clothes off, leaving me with that pepper spray burning my face.”

Some of the most poignant letters I get are from prisoners writing on behalf of the mentally ill in isolated confinement called Special Needs units – like Darren Rainey, a Florida prisoner who, in 2012 was locked in a shower stall whose water supply was delivered through a hose controlled by guards. The water was one hundred and eighty degrees, hot enough to brew tea. Rainey had burns on more than 90% of his body, his skin fell off at the touch.  Or calls from NJ prisoners about Frank Hunter, who was forced to perform humiliating dances for food and soap. Frank Hunter killed himself.

These past years Prison Watch volunteer staff and intern students have been dealing with complaints from prisoners and their families, describing inhumane conditions including cold, filth, callous medical care, extended isolation, use of devices of torture, harassment, brutality and racism. I have received vivid descriptions and drawings of four and five point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, tethers, and waist and leg chains. Often the worst torment people testify to is the psychological assault of “no touch torture” which can include humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, extreme light or dark, extreme cold or heat, and solitary confinement often lasting years. This is a systematic and purposeful attack on all human stimuli.

In the mid 80’s the AFSC received a letter from Ojore Lutalo who had been placed in the Management Control Unit at Trenton State Prison. He asked what a control unit was, why he was in there and how long he would have to stay. Some of the answers to those questions would unfold over the next quarter of a century that we monitored and advocated on behalf of Ojore and others imprisoned in isolation.

“How do you describe desperation to someone who is not desperate”? began one letter to me from Ojore,  who went on to depict everyone in the Control Unit  being awakened by guards dressed in riot gear holding barking dogs at 1 a.m. every other morning. Once awakened, the prisoners were forced to strip, gather their belongings while feeling the dogs straining at their leashes snapping at their private parts. He described being terrorized, intimidated, and the humiliation of being naked not knowing whether the masked guards were male or female. If we think back to slavery and to images of the civil rights movement we know that dogs have been used as a device of torture for hundreds of years in the US.

Ojore spent 22 years day after day, week after week and year after year in NJ State Prison’s Management Control Unit, without being charged with any infraction. I sometimes challenge my intern students to spend four hours in their bathroom, and they don’t make it. Ojore not only made it, he managed to create, mentor and teach through what he called “propaganda”, which he would send out to share. His social and political commentary on prisons depicting his reality, what was happening to him, and his refusal to be silenced by the horror of his circumstances taught us all.

Prolonged solitary confinement in the form of control units, security threat group management units, special needs units, communications management units, special housing units – there are many names – has been a long time concern for prison activists on both sides of the walls.  Control units surfaced during the 70’s when many in my generation genuinely believed we were free to dissent politically. It was during these tumultuous years of the civil rights era when large numbers of activists found themselves in US prisons, some, according to the UN definition, becoming UN political prisoners and others becoming prisoners of war. Sensory deprivation was used with imprisoned members of the Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican Independentistas, members of the American Indian Movement, the Chicano movement, white anti-imperialists, civil rights activists and members of the Black Liberation Army. Just think about the political implications of a country placing activists in isolation so that they cannot teach the younger generation to have political memory. People across the globe recognized then that the US held political prisoners. (5 minute video)

Current efforts to expand the solitary confinement population involve the alleged spread of gang problems in the US. The AFSC began receiving letters from people in street organizations placed in units called Security Threat Group Management Units, complaining of extreme isolation, brutality and racial profiling. The physical and chemical abuse in gang units is infamous to those of us who monitor the torment that these young people of color experience daily. (“Sneak Peek” on You Tube)

The progression of the use of isolation is most recently known as “Communications Management Units”, which are specifically designed to restrict the communications of imprisoned, and often entrapped, Muslims with their families, the media and the outside world. This treatment of Islamic prisoners is replicated in US secret prisons throughout the world where almost all of those kept in such places are people of color.

The transition from slavery to Black Codes to convict leasing to the Jim Crow laws to the wars on poverty, drugs and political activism has been a seamless evolution of political and social incapacitation of the poor and people of color. The sophisticated fascism of the practices of stop and frisk, charging people in inner cities with “wandering”, driving and walking while black, zip code racism – these and many other de facto practices all serve to keep our prisons full.  Over 40 years ago, an imprisoned hero of my generation, George Jackson, noted: “The ultimate expression of law is not order – its prison.”

The conditions and practices that the imprisoned testify to are in violation of The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination – all international treaties which the US has signed. US prison practices also fit the United Nations definition of genocide, with which this country has a long history.

If we dig deeper into US criminal justice practices, the political function they serve is inescapable. Police, the courts, the prison system and the death penalty all serve as social control mechanisms. The economic function they serve is equally chilling. Just as in the era of chattel slavery, there is a class of people dependent on bodies of color as a source for income.  The Department of Corrections is more than a set of institutions. It is also a state of mind. That state of mind led to Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, and what is going on in US prisons right this moment. You cannot give me a reason for the testimonies of the men, women and children that come into my life every single day. You cannot give me a reason for what happened to Ojore.

I’ve been part of the struggle for civil and human rights for over 50 years. My soul is haunted by what I read in my daily mail. For me, I cannot achieve contentment while so many of my fellow human beings are tortured in US prisons. Nor can I have peace while this country continues its imperial overreach waging war at home on the poor and people of color, and in the wider world in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and low intensity wars the US is waging in Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Honduras and Guatemala   – all countries of color. Whether we work to stop war, end white supremacy or oppose the oppressions of globalization, we need to see the ways these connect to the punishment regime. And while we are working to end white supremacy, we need to reflect on whether white supremacists are really more dangerous than “regular” white people, who seem to enjoy the benefits of white supremacy while professing they don’t believe in it.

We need to alter the very core of every system that slavery, bigotry and poverty have given birth to, especially the criminal legal system. The US must alter the 13th Amendment; stop violating the human rights of men, woman and children, and must decriminalize poverty, mental illness and in many cases, people who identify as LGBQ. The US has legalized murder in the form of Stand Your Ground laws and turned torture into an instrument of domestic and foreign policy.

The AFSC has always recognized the existence and continued expansion of the penal system as a profound spiritual crisis. It is a crisis that allows children to be demonized, and which legitimizes torture, isolation and the abuse of power. It is a crisis which extends beyond prisons into school and judicial systems. I know each time we send a child to bed hungry that is violence. That wealth concentrated in the hands of a few at the expense of many is violence, that the denial of dignity based on race, class, citizenship or sexual identity is violence. And that poverty and prisons are a form of state-manifested violence. The use of isolation, chemical and physical torture, and mass imprisonment must be abolished.

Many of you are going into professions where you can have an impact, where your silence would be akin to consent. The AFSC is working with many groups and coalitions toward a national anti-racist movement against torture and prisons among people who dare to believe that over 2 million men, women and children need not be imprisoned to make the rest of us feel safe. We hope you join us in our bond with prisoners, ex-prisoners, their families, faith-based and civil society organizations in this country when we protest collectively, “Not in My Name.”

I want to close with something that was probably written by a brilliant law student! It says, “Apartheid was legal, the Holocausts were legal, slavery was legal, colonialism was legal. Legality is a matter of power, not justice.”

Thank you.

Opportunities: Critical Resistance, US Human Rights Network, NYCAIC, JAC, NY Correctional Association.