The World Inside Out

February 14, 2014

Quincy Saul, September 2013

“Some people say America is heaven. People have a right to their prerogative, but I was born and raised in America and I say yes America is heaven to some, but I let people know that in heaven they got some people kept in hell.” Robert Hillary King, From Bottom of the Heap, p218

Last year at this time, I had the privilege of meeting one of the most remarkable men in the world. I had to arrange the visit months in advance and travel hundreds of miles, to the far reaches of the empty snowswept plains of western Pennsylvania. There, inside a high-tech fortress of barbed wire, whitewashed concrete, surveillance cameras and armed guards, through multiple sets of magnetic locking doors and behind bulletproof glass, I finally met Russell Maroon Shoatz.

To visit a prison is to visit a part of yourself which you may never confront otherwise. To confront the captivity of others is to confront your own freedom. To go inside an institution designed supposedly to protect you, yet so often kept distant and hidden from you, is to go inside your own beliefs about liberty and security.

This and much more was revealed to me in my visit with this author, educator, and senior citizen who has been held in solitary confinement for nearly thirty years. From the depths of his solitary confinement cell, this man has summoned a clarity and vision of life and purpose that is very rare in this world. While many are driven insane by a few days in solitary, he has not only survived decades of this torture but has grown ever deeper in the fortitude of his character and in his compassion for humanity and the planet.

Writing decades ago in a classic collection of letters titled, “In the Belly of the Beast”, prisoner Jack Henry Abbott described in lurid detail the horrors of the US prison system and solitary confinement in particular. He noted also that while many are destroyed by solitary, a very few find the strength to survive it: “a kind of genius can come of this deprivation of sensation, of experience. . . . The composition of the mind is altered. Its previous cultivation is disintegrated and it has greater access to the brain, the body: it is Supersanity.” (Abbott p50) It is this supersanity that I encountered behind bars at SCI Greene in the warm smile and honest eyes of Russell Maroon Shoatz; a remarkable depth of intellect and morality which the US criminal justice system has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to destroy behind closed and locked doors. With him, I saw the world from the inside-out…

We Have a Nightmare

On the recent 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s, famous “I have a dream” speech, it is necessary to admit that despite high hopes and hard work, we have a nightmare. If some still see the United States as a beacon of freedom and justice, Robert King, another senior citizen who spent nearly 30 years in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit, today travels the world telling people that in heaven they have people locked up in hell. With five percent of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s prisoners, the United States is the incarceration capital of the world: 2.5 million people are behind bars, and over 7 million are under the surveillance and control of the criminal justice system. And anyone with a brain can see that these prisoners aren’t being judged only by the content of their character: there are more African Americans under the supervision of the criminal justice system than there were slaves in the 1850s. One in three black men born in the US today will spend time behind bars.

Mass incarceration as we know it today began only about thirty years ago. But the system and society which gave rise to it did not fall out of the sky. Touring the country in 1831, Alexander de Tocqueville identified in nascent form what he called the “monomania of the penitentiary system.” In the mid 1800’s, the Boston Prison Discipline Society went so far as to recommend that prisons actually be models for other community institutions. In their words, incarceration becomes “a grand theatre for the trial of all new plans for hygiene and education.” And of course the punitive and vengeful motive for penal justice has accompanied us through and through. 19th century judge named Fitzjames Stephens wrote “I think it highly desirable that criminals should be hated, that the punishments inflicted upon them should be so contrived as to give expression to that hatred and justify it.” While reformed language has given a veneer of progress and rehabilitation to the prison system in subsequent years, the prevailing attitude remains medieval. So William Bennett, the Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan described prisoners as “animals who should be beheaded.” (Kurshan, p185)

These attitudes reached a peak in the 1970s, when prison rebellions swept around the country. All over, prisoners organized themselves to demand justice, improved conditions, education, and real rehabilitation. These uprisings were met with unconditional hostility and brutality, and hundreds of prisoners were murdered nationwide. In one better-known case, the peacefully protesting prisoners of Attica prison in New York were massacred with two full minutes of gunfire by the police and national guard.

In the aftermath of the Attica rebellion and others, and picking up steam in the 1980s, the prison population grew exponentially, and mass incarceration developed into the financial and political industry that Angela Davis famously called “the prison industrial complex.” The private prison industry today has an annual revenue of five billion dollars, and the largest of them (Corrections Corporation of America) boasted record profits last year. As heavy-weight champion turned inmate Rubin “Hurricane” Carter realized long ago, “keeping folks like me locked up inside these iron lungs was big, big business.” (Carter, p187) His book was published in 1974, and the Attica uprising happened in 1971. Yet since 1980 the Federal prison population alone has grown by almost 800 percent. How did this system successfully confine and control the consciousness and outrage of millions of people across the country, and continue to grow?

The Birth of the Control Unit

The answer is solitary confinement – and more specifically, a new system and architecture of repression known as the Control Unit. First tested in 1972 in response to an uprising in Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois , this systematized program of solitary confinement served to not only isolate agitators, educators and leaders from the rest of the prison population, but it also had the effect of breaking minds and spirits. What was born in the Control Unit system was nothing less than a large-scale mind control program designed to preserve the status quo in the US prison system and to allow its unchecked growth to continue.

Once again, this system’s designers were outspoken in their intentions. Dr. Edgar Schein, an MIT academic who was influential in the construction and design of the Control Unit system, wrote to his audience of administrators that “I would like to have you think of brainwashing, not in terms of politics, ethics, and morals, but in terms of the deliberate changing of human behavior by a group of men who have relatively complete control over the environment in which the captive populace lives.” (Kurshan, p12) Schein, an MIT professor who is a philanthropist of classical music and a member of the Audobon Society, perfectly illustrates the degree to which the attitude and ethos of social control is embedded and integrated into the fabric of US official society. Moreover, mind control is not limited to the prison system, but is intended to permeate and police those on the outside as well. As Ralph Aaron, warden of the first Control Unit in Marion Illinois testified in 1975, “[t]he purpose of the Marion control unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and the society at large.” (Kurshan, p70)

While solitary confinement marked a transition from the more physically brutal control techniques of the past, those who have survived tell the tale of the nightmare and torture that solitary confinement really is. “They go for your mind in prison today – where before, it was all physical suffering. The stakes are much, much greater today,” said Abbott, who was tortured the old-fashioned way too. (Abbott, p20). As long ago as 1842, Charles Dickens wrote an essay titled “Philadelphia and its Solitary Prison,” where he concluded “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

Today the United States leads the world in solitary confinement, a punishment that one victim recently called “a sentence worse than death.” No less than 80,000 people on any given day are being held in solitary, including children and the mentally ill. And you don’t have to be a revolutionary agitator to get thrown in solitary – in one recent case, a prisoner in Pennsylvania, who for legal reasons prefers to remain anonymous, was put in solitary for teaching other prisoners to read. We have a nightmare.

Inside-Out and Upside-Down

In his Memoirs from the House of the Dead, written from the prison camps of Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky observed that “tyranny is a habit; it has the capacity to develop and it does develop, in the end, into a disease. . . . A society that contemplates such manifestations calmly is already corrupted at its roots.” In the United States today, tyranny has become not only habitual but systematized; integrated into the very fabric of the political economy of the nation-state. The powers that be would have us believe that society is calm and that the corruption is complete. But if there is any calm in the US today, it is the calm before the storm.

Last year, one of the largest coordinated actions of civil disobedience in recent US history took place in the California prison system, when over 30,000 prisoners went on hunger strike to oppose the abuses of solitary confinement. This can only be the beginning. Movements against solitary confinement and against mass incarceration are growing, and the campaign to free Russell Maroon Shoatz has found quick allies from Vermont to Texas and from South Africa to East Timor, including Nobel Laureates calling for his release. This campaign is only one part of a growing movement to seek deeper change to a system which tortures senior citizens.

Earlier this year, Maroon’s writings have been collected and published for the first time: Maroon the Implacable: The Collected Writings of Russell Maroon Shoatz. The book is remarkable not only because of the conditions under which it was written, but because it offers profound and accessible insight, theory, strategy and vision for the transformation of society. In their afterword, South African parliamentarian Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and campaign co-chair Matt Meyer and write:

“We remember well the lectures which admonished us, in our different geographic spaces and political settings, that no such changes could take place in South Africa without a tremendous amount of bloodshed, and probably not in our lifetimes. And yet, we learned that dreams, when combined with the proper amount of fortitude, strategic planning, intense organizing, tactical considerations, and combined local, grassroots, door-to-door campaigning along with international solidarity, can have a startling way of coming true.”(Shoatz p273)

The world is waking up with new dreams, new proposals and a new conviction to combine them with the science of collective action. The campaign to free Russell Maroon Shoatz is not only a just and moral struggle – it is a struggle that we can win. We must win it – not only for him, but for everyone. Because as Assata Shakur wrote in an immortal poem, “outside and inside / are just an illusion.”

To see the world from the inside out is to see yourself inside out, to confront the fragility of your beliefs and convictions, and the fortitude of your fears and prejudices. It is to discover yourself in a moral crucible, to feel the contortions which you have been in all along, perhaps without even knowing. There is only one way to break out, and that path leads both inward and outward, and beyond.

To see the world from the inside-out is to recognize that it must be turned upside-down. For to accept for an instant the torture of another is to invite a rupture into your own being. To allow yourself to forget, ignore or be indifferent to this rupture tears a chasm wider still. To heal is not the act of a day or a year or even a lifetime, it is a collective struggle against tyranny, which must be in the heart of every moment.



From the Bottom of the Heap, by Robert Hillary King, PM Press, 2012

Out of Control: A Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons, by Nancy Kurshan, The Freedom Archives, 2013

In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison, by Jack Henry Abott, Random House, 1981

The Sixteenth Round, by Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Chicago Review Press, 2011

Let Freedom Ring, A Collection of Documents from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners, edited by Matt Meyer, PM Press and Kersplebedeb, 2008

Maroon the Implacable, by Russell Maroon Shoatz, Edited by Fred Ho and Quincy Saul, PM Press 2013