We came together to reclaim our humanity

In: SF Bay View, Dec. 2nd, 2013by Michael Zaharibu Dorrough

To the extent that it is possible, we have been following the legislative hearings and we are hopeful – cautiously optimistic – that something meaningful and permanent will result from them.

We are all mindful of the promises made by some legislators in 2000 that efforts would be made to change the inhumanities that are inherent in the SHUs and exacerbated by the state, the pitting of prisoners against one another, isolating prisoners away from their families and loved ones and housing us in areas that are hostile to us (the complete illness). But we are also mindful that this time the legislative hearings are being held as a result of struggle and sacrifice.

It is what Frederick Douglass meant by “If there is no struggle there is no progress … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” He also said, “Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”

And it was magnificent [during the hunger strike] to see inside the walls, to actually struggle together, people from different cultures and spaces. (The hospital here was overwhelmed nightly.)

And it’s really important that we separate ourselves from the state-created gang narrative that has been responsible for so much discourse [and discord] amongst us for so long.

This coming together to reclaim our humanity required political maturity on everyone’s part, young and old alike, throughout the system and the organizing efforts of the many, many progressives out there were and are equally magnificent. It serves as a basis for our hope.

And more than anything I wanted to write to say, from all of us here, thank you (and that is such an understatement) to you, the Bay View and everyone throughout the nation and globe for your courage, leadership, faith and friendship, support and inspiration and love.

There is still so much work to do and freedom to win and we look forward to the struggle ahead with you all. Until we win or don’t lose.

Send our brother some love and light: Michael Zaharibu Dorrough, D-83611, Cor SHU, 4B-1L-43, P.O. Box 3481, Corcoran, CA 93212.

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California prisoners suspend 59-day hunger strike – families, legislators respond

From: SF Bay View, Sept 5th 2013
Isaac Ontiveros and Claude Marks, Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition
Oakland – After 59 days on hunger strike, prisoners at Pelican Bay have suspended their peaceful protest. Representatives of the Short Corridor Collective at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit have based their decision on a meeting with fellow prisoners at the prison, the growing international condemnation of California’s practice of solitary confinement, as well as the commitment of California Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committee Chairs Loni Hancock and Tom Ammiano to convene a series of hearings in response to the strikers’ demands that would “address the issues that have been raised to a point where they can no longer be ignored.”
Pelican Bay prisoners also noted that despite California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) repeated attacks on the strikers and their loved ones, they are firm in their commitment to end torture and violence in California’s notorious prison system. They are hopeful that their decision could reach their fellow prisoners still on strike in other facilities and said they would continue to support them in whatever choices they make regarding their protest.
The statement from strike representatives at Pelican Bay declaring a suspension to their protest reads in full:

Statement suspending the third hunger strike

Greetings of Solidarity and Respect!
1102936_ME_PelicanBay__

This view of the Pelican Bay SHU cells from the exercise cell encompasses the tiny world of the men who signed this statement – all of them confined to this space for many years, some for decades. Out of this isolated space, where torture is a daily occurrence, has come such extraordinary strategy and diplomacy that, with the help of all who read this, they are bound to win justice. – Photo: Mark Boster, L.A. Times

The PBSP-SHU Short Corridor Collective Representatives hereby serve notice upon all concerned parties of interest that after nine weeks we have collectively decided to suspend our third hunger strike action on Sept. 5, 2013.

To be clear, our peaceful protest of resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system’s solitary confinement units is far from over. Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly.
This decision is especially difficult considering that most of our demands have not been met – despite nearly universal agreement that they are reasonable. The core group of prisoners has been and remains 100 percent committed to seeing this protracted struggle for real reform through to a complete victory, even if it requires us to make the ultimate sacrifice. With that said, we clarify this point by stating prisoner deaths are not the objective; we recognize such sacrifice is at times the only means to an end of fascist oppression.
Our goal remains: Force the powers that be to end their torture policies and practices in which serious physical and psychological harm is inflicted on tens of thousands of prisoners as well as our loved ones outside. We also call for ending the related practices of using prisoners to promote the agenda of the police state by seeking to greatly expand the numbers of the working class poor warehoused in prisons, and particularly those of us held in solitary, based on psychological and social manipulation, and divisive tactics keeping prisoners fighting amongst each other.

To be clear, our peaceful protest of resistance to our continuous subjection to decades of systemic state sanctioned torture via the system’s solitary confinement units is far from over. Our decision to suspend our third hunger strike in two years does not come lightly.

Those in power promote mass warehousing to justify more guards and more tax dollars for “security,” yet spend mere pennies for rehabilitation – all of which demonstrates a failed penal system and high recidivism – ultimately compromising public safety. The state of California’s $9.1 billion annual CDCR budget is the epitome of a failed and fraudulent state agency that diabolically and systemically deprives thousands of their human rights and dignity.
Allowing this agency to act with impunity has to stop! And it will.
With that said, and in response to much sincere urging of loved ones, supporters, our attorneys, and current and former state legislators, Tom Ammiano, Loni Hancock and Tom Hayden, for whom we have the utmost respect, we decided to suspend our hunger strike. We are especially grateful to Sen. Hancock and Assembly Member Ammiano for their courageous decision to challenge Gov. Brown and the CDCR for their policies of prolonged solitary confinement and inhumane conditions. We are certain that they will continue their fight for our cause, including holding legislative hearings and drafting legislation responsive to our demands on prison conditions and sentencing laws. We are also proceeding with our class action civil suit against the CDCR.
The fact is that Gov. Brown and CDCR Secretary Beard have responded to our third peaceful action with typical denials and falsehoods, claiming solitary confinement does not exist and justifying the continuation of their indefinite torture regime by vilifying the peaceful protest representatives. They also obtained the support of medical receiver Kelso and Prison Law Office attorney Spector – who is supposed to represent prisoners interests, and instead has become an agent for the state – to perpetuate their lie to the public and to the federal court that prisoners participating in the hunger strike have been coerced in order to obtain the Aug. 19 force feeding order.

From our perspective, we’ve gained a lot of positive ground towards achieving our goals. However, there’s still much to be done. Our resistance will continue to build and grow until we have won our human rights.

We have deemed it to be in the best interest of our cause to suspend our hunger strike action until further notice.
We urge people to remember that we began our present resistance with our unprecedented collective and peaceful actions – in tandem with the legislative process – back in early 2010, when we created and distributed a “Formal Complaint” for the purpose of educating the public and bringing widespread attention to our torturous conditions.
After much dialogue and consideration, this led us to our first and second hunger strike actions in 2011, during which a combined number of 6,500 and 12,000 prisoners participated. We succeeded in gaining worldwide attention and support resulting in some minor changes by the CDCR concerning SHU programming and privileges. They also claimed to make major changes to policies regarding gang validation and indefinite SHU confinement by creating the STG-SDP Pilot Program. They released a few hundred prisoners from SHU and Ad Seg to general population in the prison. But in truth, this is all part of a sham to claim the pilot program works and was a weak attempt to have our class action dismissed. It didn’t work.
In response, we respectfully made clear that CDCR’s STG-SDP was not responsive to our demand for the end to long term isolation and solitary confinement and thus unacceptable. (See Agreement to End Hostilities.)
Our supporting points fell on deaf ears, leading to our January 2013 notice of intent to resume our hunger strike on July 8, 2013, if our demands were not met. We also included 40 supplemental demands.
In early July, CDCR produced several memos notifying prisoners of an increase in privileges and property items, which are notably responsive to a few of our demands, while the majority of our demands were unresolved, leading to our third hunger strike, in which 30,000 prisoners participated and which resulted in greater worldwide exposure, support and condemnation of the CDCR!
From our perspective, we’ve gained a lot of positive ground towards achieving our goals. However, there’s still much to be done. Our resistance will continue to build and grow until we have won our human rights.
Respectfully,
For the Prisoner Class Human Rights Movement
  • Todd Ashker, C58191, D1-119
  • Arturo Castellanos, C17275, D1-121
  • Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (Dewberry), C35671, D1-117
  • Antonio Guillen, P81948, D2-106
  • And the Representatives Body:
  • Danny Troxell, B76578, D1-120
  • George Franco, D46556, D4-217
  • Ronnie Yandell, V27927, D4-215
  • Paul Redd, B72683, D2-117
  • James Baridi Williamson, D-34288. D4-107
  • Alfred Sandoval, D61000, D4-214
  • Louis Powell, B59864, D1-104
  • Alex Yrigollen, H32421, D2-204
  • Gabriel Huerta, C80766, D3-222
  • Frank Clement, D07919, D3-116
  • Raymond Chavo Perez, K12922, D1-219
  • James Mario Perez, B48186, D3-124
Isaac Ontiveros and Azadeh Zohrabi are spokespersons for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition. Ontiveros can be reached at (510) 444-0484 or isaac@criticalresistance.org.

Family members’ statement on suspension of hunger strike

As family members and leaders of the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC) organization, the Hunger Strike Mediation Team and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition, we feel that the almost 60-day hunger strike was a huge sacrifice on the part of the prisoners. We can’t imagine what their bodies have endured these past 60 days, and we are very glad that it’s over and that there were no lives lost.
At the same time, we know and are prepared for the greater challenges that lie ahead. To ensure that the prisoners, our loved ones, never need endure such suffering again, we will continue in our work to bring an end to such inhumane conditions. As members of CFASC, ourselves and many family members are ready to continue and remain in the forefront to bring an end to the use of long term solitary confinement.
We are very proud of our family members and loved ones who were willing to make such a sacrifice, which has gained international attention, and we are honored to be part of such a historical movement.
  • Irene Huerta, CFASC, wife of Gabriel Huerta, PB Short Corridor Representative
  • Dolores Canales, CFASC, mother of PB SHU prisoner
California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement can be reached at (714) 290-9077,www.abolishsolitary.com or Chuco’s Justice Center, 1137 East Redondo Blvd, Inglewood, CA 90302.

Legislative leaders welcome end to hunger strike, re-affirm commitment to hearings on prisoner concerns

Sacramento – Today Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, welcomed the end to the California prison inmate hunger strike after 60 days.
“I am relieved and gratified that the hunger strike has ended without further sacrifice or risk of human life,” Sen. Hancock stated. ““The issues raised by the hunger strike are real – concerns about the use and conditions of solitary confinement in California’s prisons – and will not be ignored.”
“I’m happy that no one had to die in order to bring attention to these conditions,” Ammiano said. “The prisoners’ decision to take meals should be a relief to CDCR and the Brown administration, as well as to those who support the strikers.”
The end to the hunger strike comes five days after Hancock and Ammiano announced that they will hold joint public hearings on the conditions in California prisons that have led to the inmate hunger strike. The two legislators asked the inmates to end the hunger strike so that energy and attention can be focused on the issues that have been raised.
According to Sen. Hancock: “The inmates participating in the hunger strike have succeeded in bringing these issues to the center of public awareness and debate. Legislators now recognize the seriousness and urgency of these concerns and we will move forward to address them.”
“I’m especially gratified if the call for hearings helped bring this about,” Ammiano said. “However, our real work begins now, as we will soon start preparing for hearings that I hope can bring an end to the disgraceful conditions that triggered the hunger strike.”
The first hearing is expected to take place in October and will focus on two key issues raised by the hunger strike:
1. The conditions of confinement in California’s maximum security prisons
On April 9, 2013, a U.S. District Judge ruled in a class action law suit that inmates being held in solitary confinement, sometimes for decades, had adequately demonstrated that the state of California may be denying them protection from cruel and unusual punishment and granted the plaintiffs the right to a trial.
2. The effect of long-term solitary confinement as a prison management strategy and a human rights issue
Sen. Hancock stated: “California continues to be an outlier in its use of solitary confinement. Solitary confinement has been recognized internationally and by other states to be an extreme form of punishment that leads to mental illness if used for prolonged periods of time. Since many of these inmates will eventually have served their sentences and will be released, it is in all our best interest to offer hope of rehabilitation while they are incarcerated – not further deterioration.”
“We know these prisoners have committed crimes,” Ammiano said, “but I have to repeat: It does not justify the way the state is treating them in the name of all Californians. We want California to be a leader in effective and enlightened corrections and true rehabilitation.”
The two legislators cited a report by Juan E. Méndez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture: “Even if solitary confinement is applied for short periods of time, it often causes mental and physical suffering or humiliation, amounting to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and if the resulting pain or sufferings are severe, solitary confinement even amounts to torture.”
They also referred to the 2006 report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force. The report found that between 1995 and 2000, the use of solitary confinement in the United States had increased by 40 percent, far outpacing the 28 percent growth rate of the overall prison population. The commission concluded that solitary confinement is counterproductive to public safety and costs twice as much as imprisonment in the general population. The commission recommended ending long-term isolation of inmates.
For more information, contact Carlos Alcalá, communications director for the Office of Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, at Carlos.Alcala@asm.ca.gov or (916) 319-2017.

What you can do

Join a 60-hour solidarity fast to end long term solitary confinement at Gov. Jerry Brown’s condo, 27th and Telegraph in Oakland any time from Thursday, Sept. 5, at noon to Saturday, Sept. 7, at midnight, in honor, respect and support of the California prison hunger strikers who suspended their hunger strike after 60 days.
Hunger strike solidarity activists will publicly fast in front of Gov. Brown’s condo for 60 hours, shining a light on his gross disregard for life and blatant profiteering off of human suffering. We invite everyone to claim space with us, whether fasting or not. POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!!
Come by during First Friday. There will be a noise demo on Friday, Sept. 6, at 9 p.m.
For more information, email casolidarityfast@gmail.com.

Zaharibu: we are being isolated in Corcoran-SHU! No medical Checkups! Stripped of property!

Since July 8th, 30,000 prisoners have started a hunger strike in California protesting the solitary confinement policies which can lead to people being kept in the SHU (Secure Housing Unit) for years, decades even.
Michael Zaharibu Dorrough has been in the SHU for 24+ years.

Since the hunger strike began, the prison authorities of CSP-Corcoran have moved Zaharibu and his cellmate who are both on hunger strike to another unit: 4A 3R. This is a unit used for “debriefers”, which means prisoners who have informed the prison officials and gang investigators (IGI) on other prisoners concerning gang membership.

Here is a letter from Zaharibu, which he wrote to a friend outside on July 14th:

Zaharibu Dorrough: we are being isolated in Corcoran-SHU! No medical checkups! Stripped of property!
From a letter by Zaharibu Dorrough to a friend:

7/14/13

From a letter by Zaharibu Dorrough to a friend:
7/14/13
Forgive me for not being able to write sooner. It has been very, very tiresome. [Thinking of you
all has been quite the motivator]
On Thursday, 7-11-13, the warden here ordered the supposed leaders of the protest be isolated from good people. That meant that the reps from each cultural group from the section that we were in: 4B-1L, C section have been moved. Myself, H., two Southern Hispanics, and two Northern Hispanics. 
We are now housed in: 4A-3R. [And three of the guys have been housed in 4A-3L] These blocks are designated as SNY/PC buildings . All of the guys in this building [as well as 4A-3L] are informants. They have debriefed.
A day after we were moved here, mattresses were placed in front of our cell. This we designed to re-enforce, psychologically, the feeling of being isolated. And, I guess, to prevent us from receiving food or beverages from anyone. It’s so silly that is borders on being offensive. We have absolutely nothing at all in common with any of the people housed in the building. There is no reason at all to communicate with or accept anything from them. As is said, it’s a building full of stool pigeons. This is the CDCR’s version of sending us to a black site. The conduct of these guys would be comical were it not so disrespectful. You cannot help but hear the idiot shit that is directed at us. And it’s not just daily, it’s all day.
It’s an Absolute Madhouse.
Moving us down here was an extremely tense situation. The warden did authorize that force be used to move us. And it came very close to that happening. It was incredibly irresponsible of the warden. And a clear case of trying to provoke us into a military posture.
We were naturally stripped of our property. And, just as predictable, some of our personal property items came up missing. Thermals, photos [they took the only two copies of the photo I had of me],dictionary, stationary. I’ll have to replace some of it when I am eligible for my package. The Prison Focus, Bayview, gone! At this point it’s the kind of thing that causes you to think and say-when it’s too hot for everyone else, it’s just right for us!-
We have not been to yard in almost 2 weeks. We have not been allowed to shower in a week.
We received no medical attention. NO WEIGH-INS, NO vital signs checks-nothing. A nurse came to the cell this morning, stood approximately 3-4 feet from the cell, stated “drink plenty of water”, wrote something down and walked away. I called her several times in an effort to explain to her that we are both experiencing [assuming this is Zaharibu and Heshima] light headedness, extreme fatigue, nausea, blurred vision, cold chills, dizziness. The nurse just ignored me and kept walking. It was very obvious that she was reading from a script that she, perhaps all of them have been given. And it is either to not say anything at all to us-or only the bare minimum….
Ordinarily, efforts such as those being made by the state now [Everyone was issued a 128, a Chrono alleging that our participation in a statewide hunger strike with gang members and associates in support of “perceived overly harsh SHU issues”, is gang related activity. And our continued participation will result in progressive disciplinary action] occur in response to efforts, just as enthusiastic, by those of us who have been under the yoke of tyranny for far too long, resisting.
I know that it has been said before, but it is worth saying a thousand times …you all are amazing, brave and inspiring people. Whatever victories that result from this struggle will, in no small measure, be because of your contributions, support, and commitment.
                                                Please take care
                                                 Always with you
                                                             Love, hugs   Zaharibu

About Zaharibu (Michael Reed Dorrough)

Zaharibu, or Michael Reed Dorrough, is held a prisoner at the California State Prison – Corcoran Secure Housing Unit (SHU). He was falsely arrested in 1985. He has spent more than 24 years in solitary confinement.

With this website we, Friends of Zaharibu, show our support for his case for innocence.

Also, we want to highlight the torturous conditions inside California’s solitary confinement units: locked in a very small cell for 24 hours a day, with only yardtime a few hours a week; no telephone calls ever; one hour visits behind glass; never being able to touch one’s family/loved ones; one photo a year they had to fight for to get; inadequate food and clothing, etc. Zaharibu needs to be heard and released.

We have also created a Facebook profile page for Zaharibu that we manage to keep in contact more easily with his family and friends, supporters.

Note: “Being validated” does not mean a lot, it is the terminology of the California dept. of Corrections (CDCR). The term is being used not only for gang members but also to lock-in solitary people who adhere to authors, political programs, etc. that are classified by CDCR as undesirable in their views. Making these prisoners political or politicised prisoners.

This comes from SolitaryWatch and SF Bay View: (Sept. 24th 2012)

Michael Dorrough, an inmate at California State Prison, Corcoran, who has spent 24 years in the SHU after being  validated as a member of the Black Guerilla Family in 1988, is skeptical of any talk of reforms:

It is virtually impossible to figure out or believe anything you might hear regarding the step down program. It’s supposed to be revised again. This will be the sixth revision. In all honesty I would not want to be included in it. Aside from those privileges that have been outlined in each of the draft proposals, you have no idea what the expectations are. And it is stated that there are expectations. There is a contract that you must sign stipulating that you agree with whatever the expectations are. No one knows what the contract looks like and that’s usually the best indication that something is wrong.

Dorrough, who has been held in all three of California’s SHUs, writes of psychological struggles as a result of his prolonged isolation:

I know that, psychologically, damage has been done. I don’t just talk to myself, I curse myself out. Sometimes I’ll drop something, a piece of paper, a spoon, and I’ll get mad at whatever I’ve dropped. I’ll snatch it off the floor with the intention of harming it.

You can actually feel yourself disconnecting. And I ask myself from what? You really have been cut off from everything. This is it.

And here we are only allowed out to the yard cages once, maybe twice a week. We are confined to the cells 24 hours a day, five or six days a week. I have developed a condition in which I bite down on my back teeth constantly. It’s been happening for a couple of years. And the only thing I have been told is that it’s all in my mind.

“Isolation can really crush your spirit,” he writes.

Address:

Michael Zaharibu Dorrough
D-83611,
CSP-Cor-SHU, 4B-1L-43

P.O. Box 3481,
Corcoran, CA 93212

(Zaharibu was forcibly removed from 4B to 4A during the July 2013 hunger strike)

Michael Zaharibu Dorrough has impacted other people’s lives positively

Foto

This is a letter by a friend of Zaharibu, and it shows how much positive influence he has had on the friend who is now trying to visit him.

Another friend of Zaharibu wrote: “We believe it is things of this nature which further prove the positive impact on people’s lives that N.C.T.T. (NARN Collective Think Tank, the movement for positive change for people) Activists continue (and have always) have (had); while simultaneously debunking the lie that Zaharibu and his comrades inside of the N.C.T.T. are “gang members” or anything other than the progressive political activists which they are.”

Foto This is page 2 of the letter of the friend of Zaharibu trying to visit him in prison. See how the prison authorities try to paint the wrong picture by keeping Zaharibu in the SHU as a “validated gang member”? He is not a “gang member.” Michael Zaharibu Dorrough is a very mature, responsible human being with a huge amount of care for the world and its inhabitants.

Giving him a label of “gangster” and denying him visits is cruel and does not enhance the rehabilitation that CDCR is supposed to do.

Zaharibu has been in solitary confinement since more than 24 years. He is an example of why CDCR’s STG policies have failed and are nothing more than cruel Nazi-laws.

One of my favorites…

Zaharibu sent this poem along with his letter in April, and he wrote underneath: “one of my favorites.”

William Stafford: A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

Read the rest here …. 
Foto

Being on the Outside, Writing In

 
Solitary confinement in California prisons, resistance and prisoner correspondence by Dendron Utter

From: SF Bay View, March 10th, 2013

Foto
Michael Reed Dorrough with his family before he was incarcerated

This semester in the Anthropology and Social Change program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), we focused our energy on prisoner rights and abolition movements, particularly the organizing going on within California’s supermax facilities against solitary confinement. We each linked up with a pen pal incarcerated in isolation at Pelican Bay, Corcoran, Calipatria, CCI Tehachapi or Centinela state prisons. 
 
We were able to do this through the help of Mary Ratcliff and Kendra Castenda, both active prisoner advocates. We wrote to our pen pals about their experiences inside, about the recent Agreement to End Hostilities, and about multiracial movements for prisoner rights, social justice and prison abolition. I started correspondence with a prisoner named Michael Dorrough, also known as Zaharibu, who is incarcerated in Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, Calif. He is one of the many men of color confined in isolation for 22-24 hours a day for over 20 years due to his political affiliations, lack of subservience and racial profiling. He has been in solitary confinement for 25 years.

I have learned profound lessons from him in the short three months I have known him. In hearing more about his story and the horrendous conditions he lives under, I have been driven to learn more about solitary confinement, why it must be abolished and the resistance against it. I have also been moved to become a part of that resistance in any way I can.

Solitary confinement in the United States is entrenched in the history and contemporary reality of mass incarceration of poor folks and people of color. Mass incarceration based on race is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the penitentiary system was created as an extension of chattel slavery through the Black Codes, in that freed Black folks and often Indigenous people could be detained and imprisoned for ambiguous reasons in order to maintain a slave class and a capitalist system built on exploited labor. This history is evident when looking at the huge numbers of people of color inside prisons today. It is within this racist context that solitary confinement has become a standard among politicians, wardens and administrators in the U.S. prison system.

According to Amnesty International, “More than 3,000 prisoners in California are held in high security isolation units known as Security Housing Units (SHUs), where they are confined for at least 22 and a half hours a day in single or double cells, with no work or meaningful rehabilitation programs or group activities of any kind.” Many of those locked in long-term isolation have been put there because of alleged gang affiliation. The criteria used by the California Department for Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to establish gang membership are unsound. They use “evidence” such as what prisoners are reading, connection – as simple as a greeting – to other prisoners, tattoos and the contents of their mail.




Foto

Michael Zaharibu Dorrough with his father, mother and son during a prison visit long ago

Once inmates get “validated” as gang members or associates, it is incredibly difficult to be returned to general population – especially if the inmate has any politically radical, leftist or revolutionary views or affiliations. As stated by Zaharibu, Heshima Denham and Kambui Robinson, three New Afrikan Revolutionary men in solitary at the Corcoran SHU, “Gang is a term that encompasses leftist ideologies, political and politicized prisoners, jailhouse lawyers and most anyone who in the opinion of Institutional Gang Investigations (IGI) is not passively accepting his role as a commodity in the prison industrial complex.” The combination of total isolation for extended periods of time, coerced snitching, the hostilities between racial groups inside, mental abuse and physical violence by guards can thoroughly crush prisoners. There is nothing left to do but unite and act. In fact, once labeled, the only way to be released is through a process of snitching on other inmates regarding gang affiliation. This is called “debriefing.” To force inmates to debrief is not only entirely divisive, breaking unity between prisoners, but it is dangerous due to the retaliation one might receive for acting as an informant.

Solitary confinement is akin to torture as it includes inhumane levels of sensory deprivation, extremely limited interaction with the outside world, and poor food and access to healthcare. The torture of isolation not only stems from the conditions of sensory deprivation – no human touch, no fresh air, no natural light, no windows, no sound, often no communication, no exercise, no activities, no warmth in winter – but from the strategically prolonged lengths of stay.

The combination of total isolation for extended periods of time, coerced snitching, the hostilities between racial groups inside, mental abuse and physical violence by guards can thoroughly crush prisoners. There is nothing left to do but unite and act.

Prisoners have been fighting back against inhumane treatment and abuse in the prison system since the conception of it. Two recent racial unity movements started by prisoners inside long-term solitary confinement units in California have been the hunger strike started in the Pelican Bay SHU and the agreement to end hostilities. In writing back and forth with Zaharibu, I focused my questions on these struggles and more generally on multiracial movements outside and inside prison walls.


Foto

Michael Zaharibu Dorrough in 2012 after 25 years in solitary confinement – prisoners in isolation are rarely allowed to have their pictures taken.

In the second letter I received from him, I fixated on a particular statement. He said: “The housing of citizens in isolation for any length – 10 days or 30 years – and depriving them of any and all meaningful programs for absolutely no legitimate reason should provoke a sense of outrage. That it is being done … to break human beings should provoke outrage amongst all of those who love democracy.” I realized at that moment that I have limited knowledge about solitary confinement. I sought to find out everything I could about the history, application, conditions and resistance to these atrocious control units. What I read, listened to and saw is torture under the guise of rehabilitation and safety. It is helpful to re-read Zaharibu’s letters with this research fresh in my mind. I am even more filled with outrage!

Although halting racial driven violence and uniting across race is an immense achievement and central to prisoner resistance, there is more to it than singing “We Are the World” by Michael Jackson and calling it a day. By no means am I saying that this is what incarcerated men, women and transgendered folks are doing inside, but that those of us on the outside need to do our homework and learn this history that shapes the current situation.

Zaharibu wrote in response to my questions: “A lot of us have always believed that ending the [state-created] violence and hostilities is crucial to having any kind of chance of changing the realities that we are confronted with daily. And it’s important to put this in a correct historical context. This specific effort by the state has been ongoing for the past 30 years or more.”

“The housing of citizens in isolation for any length – 10 days or 30 years – and depriving them of any and all meaningful programs for absolutely no legitimate reason should provoke a sense of outrage. That it is being done … to break human beings should provoke outrage amongst all of those who love democracy.” As I mentioned before, Zaharibu has been in solitary lockdown for 25 full years. What I did not mention is that he is incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. Like so many other African American men and women locked inside prison walls, he has a completely sound case of innocence that the courts refuse to hear.

He is guilty until proven innocent and, although his attorneys have done so, the color of his skin and his radical political views overshadow his innocence. He is currently struggling, with the help of his family, to get a new trial for his case.

“It not only connects me to life outside of prison but when I am blessed enough to meet someone like you, it connects me to the larger activist community. I consider the prisoner rights movement to be inclusive of the broader abolition movement … It is simply not possible for meaningful lasting change to occur without coalition building … I consider my being able to connect with you and the class there to be part of that coalition building.”

That statement is one of the first things Zaharibu wrote to me in November. The warmth and care that rests in these words is not uncommon in his writing. With each letter I feel more and more seen, cared for and connected to something larger than our correspondence. I am connected to the movement of a people unified to gain humanity back.

“This struggle had to happen. It was inevitable. There is simply no way that people are going to continue to allow themselves to be subjected to the constant assault on their humanity. The disrespectful, degrading, dehumanizing get down that is directed at us at some point has to be responded to. It honestly does not matter what one’s political ideology might be.” – Zaharibu Dorrough

“The time for us to get off our knees is long overdue” – Zaharibu Dorrough

What does it look like for those of us on the other side of these walls to “get off our knees” and support prisoners fighting for dignity, humanity and freedom? Some call it accompaniment or solidarity and, while I respect their praxis and can see where they are coming from, I do not agree with the notion that I am supporting someone else in their struggle. There lies a harmful distancing within that framework that is important to unpack.

With each letter I feel more and more seen, cared for and connected to something larger than our correspondence. I am connected to the movement of a people unified to gain humanity back. I view my participation as stepping up to a struggle that is all of ours to fight. Although we all have differing placements, privileges and entry points into it, that doesn’t mean we aren’t all affected by it. Some examples of how I see my role in the abolition and prisoner rights movements are being in dialogue with prisoners about needs and ideas, working with organizations such as the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and funneling resources that I have access to through the academy into these movements.

I certainly am outraged and will continue to be. I am blessed to continue learning from and sharing outrage with Zaharibu. Like a great man once said, “None of us are free until all of us are free.”

To read more about Zaharibu’s case, go to: http://nctt-shu.blogspot.com/p/zaharibu-dorroughs-case-for-innocence.html and http://zaharibuisinnocent.weebly.com/index.html.

Dendron Utter, a graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies studying prison activism with Anthropology Department Chair Andrej Grubacic, can be reached at desertinwinter@gmail.com