by J. Heshima Denham
In: SF Bay View, May 8th 2012
“The purpose of the … control unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large.” – Former Marion Supermax Prison Warden Ralph Aron
“In several instances (the control unit) has been used to silence religious leaders. It has been used to silence economic and philosophical dissidents.” – Federal Judge James Foreman, U.S. District Court, East St. Louis, Illinois, 1980
“This type of struggle gives us the opportunity to become revolutionaries, the highest form of the human species, and it also allows us to emerge fully as men; those who are unable to achieve either of those two states should say so now and abandon the struggle.” – Che Guevara, Bolivia, 1967
Heshima wrote on the back of this photo – a rarity, as prisoners in isolation often go decades without being photographed: “This photo was taken a few days after the first hunger strike ended (last July). I was only 178 pounds; I’d lost 42 pounds.”
Greetings, brothers and sisters. Perpetual existence in the sensory deprivation torture units of Amerika, like any form of socio-political violence, is virtually impossible to understand if you’ve not personally experienced it or some other form of coercive force over a prolonged period. Though the human imagination is infinitely capable of conjuring fantasies of such horrors, what appears equally shocking to many is how can some not only resist such systematic psychological torture, but actually improve themselves under such conditions of extreme duress.
Ironically, the answer lies in the motivation of the torture itself. The origin of our resistance lies in the very nature of the core contradictions of capitalist society in conflict with the advanced elements of its most oppressed strata: the bourgeois state’s attempt to stamp out revolutionary sentiment amongst the lumpen-proletariat in hopes of maintaining and expanding its reactionary character, in contrast with the struggle of political and politicized prisoners to raise the consciousness and revolutionary character of the entire underclass, all while resisting the fascist state’s attempts to silence our dissent, crush our will to struggle and foment defection.
We have consistently sought to expose the objective reality of our collective exploitation, of what society’s ills are, their origins in the arrangement of the productive system, and how to change them in the interests of the vast majority of the world’s people. We have consistently been tossed in control units for doing so.
Prison is a socially hostile microcosm of society at large.
Prison is a socially hostile microcosm of society at large. The same structures and relationships – political, social and economic – that make up U.S. society are reflected on any prison yard, stripped of the pretense of patriotism and unity. Those social forces who dictate society’s guidelines – i.e., the ruling class, bourgeois state, the 1 percent etc. – have ensured “the rule of law” is structured to sanction those who would disturb the maintenance of the core contradictions upon which capitalist society is based – i.e., social production leading to private appropriation, the economic class structure, the race card system etc.
Should critics or dissenters rock the boat too far outside the bourgeois prescribed course, they invariably find themselves ostracized or imprisoned. Once in prison nothing is different. Abuses of imprisoned revolutionaries dates back centuries in the U.S. The legacies of John Brown, Eugene V. Debs, Melvin B. Tolsen, Clifford James, W.L. Nolan and George L. Jackson continue today in the indefinite sensory deprivation isolation of Leonard Peltier, P. Sangu Jones, Mumia Abu Jamal, Sondai Ellis, Zaharibu Dorrough, Sitawa Dewberry, Jarvis Masters, D. Mutope Crawford, L. Powell, Wembe Johnson, F.Y. Carter and so many more principled servants of the people and champions of humanity, all daily subjected to indefinite psychological torture solely because they will never renounce the struggle against the oppression of man by man … and neither will I. I am a product of this unbroken legacy of revolutionary thought, action and eternal commitment and have shared the same torturous fate for 12 years, and will continue to do so until we win or don’t lose, until victory or death.
But I’ve been asked, “What is it really like, a day in your life?” We share a functional collective consciousness, so sharing a single day from my life should give you a glimpse into the “lives” – the existence – of all these examples of humanity’s most noble spirit: the revolutionary in perpetual resistance to indefinite torture.
I’ve been asked, “What is it really like, a day in your life?” We share a functional collective consciousness, so sharing a single day from my life should give you a glimpse into the “lives” – the existence – of all these examples of humanity’s most noble spirit: the revolutionary in perpetual resistance to indefinite torture.
I wake to darkness and cold. It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m in my small cell in Corcoran SHU (Security Housing Unit). I turn my head slightly to see the photos of my children and grandson on my wall and close my eyes to thank the creator for giving me another day of life in which to make some contribution to the cause of freedom, justice, equality and human rights. I ask that my comrades, my children and my siblings be watched over, their health preserved.
I then open my eyes and rise. It’s particularly cold this morning as I lace up my shoes, fold my linen, and roll my mattress back. After attending to my morning ablutions, clean the sink and sweep my floor, I turn on my TV to the news and enjoy a cup of coffee in preparation for my routine.
I have to be extra careful as I change the channel since the last power surge fried my TV cord and if I move my TV it’ll blow out again. The c/o (correctional officer) walks past flashing his light into my cell. I have the cell light that glares 24/7 blocked using a piece of string and sheet so I can stave off the migraines that accompany the constant illumination we endure daily.
I watch the various stories engaging bourgeois state-controlled media today: Multinational and domestic corporations, sitting on trillions in cash reserves, are refusing to hire because they claim a combination of “regulatory uncertainty and adverse consumer sentiment” has them sitting on the sidelines of the labor market. I see through this blatant gambit to manipulate the working class into opposing greater financial regulation and health care reform in seconds.
In an economy fueled by consumption, which is directly proportional to wage labor payrolls, corporations are intentionally prolonging the depressed economic cycle by not hiring, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of reduced consumption creating the perception amongst the exploited workers that re-establishing the deregulated free market – which is what caused this current recessionary-recovery cycle – and repealing the petty bourgeois policies of the Obama administration in favor of more industrial bourgeois policies that are championed by Republicans is their only course to broader employment.
I shake my head in a combination of pity, anger and disgust as I hear these deluded patsies parroting the ideas of the ruling class as they languish “trapped in the matrix,” their desperate conditions blinding them to their own interests. They continue to grasp and flail ineffectually to realize their immediate interests, seemingly oblivious to any conscious aspirations of changing the system itself, of seizing power and structuring society so the ownership of the means of production and distribution actually reflects the reality of social production and human need.
I immediately berate myself for the direction of my frustrated thought: I remind myself, as I rise and begin my warm-up routine of jumping jacks, that it’s not the people’s fault when the revolution fails; it is the fault of the vanguard party, our fault … MY fault. I/we must redouble my/our efforts, I think. We must combine our ideas, analyses and efforts in a more effective and efficient form to get our words heard, these ideas understood, these theories tested in the vital arena of social practice.
It’s not the people’s fault when the revolution fails; it is the fault of the vanguard party, our fault … MY fault. We must combine our ideas, analyses and efforts in a more effective and efficient form to get our words heard.
I did weight work yesterday, filling my laundry bag with stacks of transcripts and old magazines, then lashing them down with pieces of sheet and string to make a weight bag. So today I’ll do circuit training. I settle on 10 circuits of five exercises: 50 pushups, 40 crunches, 50 split-lunges, 20 dips (between the dunks) and 50 three-count squats.
The pain in my right side, which has been there since the first hunger strike, is like a piece of shrapnel in my side and by the sixth circuit I’m feeling my age, my body wanting to quit. “No one’s here but me,” I think. “I’m sweating, I’ve pushed my body, why continue to endure this pain?” Almost instantly a more insistent voice answers: “What if you were in the field of battle and the lives of your comrades and the people depended on you fighting on? What is pain to the future survival of the people, the party and the revolution? Nothing at all.”
All life is suffering; it is the nature of your existence, the price of your unwavering commitment to what is right. I heed this second voice. I ignore the pain and exhaustion and push on. I feel the cold stone under my palms and the sweat flowing from my pores, but none of it registers in my mind. I am fueled by images of combating the sick bastards on this TV who are dragging an old woman away in cuffs, her head bloodied, from an Occupy Movement protest line.
I strive to control the fire, to channel it into my exercises, and just as the rage against all the injustice I’ve witnessed and endured at the hands of this sick system seeks to overwhelm my reason, my discipline clamps down on it, I detach from my emotions, and finish my last set. I pace my small cell and drink a cup of warm water, re-asserting greater control of my breathing and heart rate in preparation for the next half of my morning regimen, cataloguing the work I have before me today and prioritizing it.
The c/o’s walk by for morning count and unlock the barbox – the sound of the metal gears falling into place, of tray slots being unlocked in preparation for chow signaling the start of another day in the torture unit. When they leave the section, I put up my window blockers and do 45 minutes to an hour of kata and martial arts training.
Here in the 4B1L-C section short corridor, the windows in the gun tower are mirror-tinted and the section windows blacked out. They can watch you, but if they’re staging a raid or monitoring your in-cell activities, you can’t see them. You thus live in a state between perpetual uncertainty and hyper-vigilance, never knowing when you’ll have your cell torn up and property destroyed or confiscated.
They are aware most imprisoned New Afrikan revolutionary nationalists practice some form of self-defense, and they believe they have sufficient documentation as to the extent of my decades of attention to these sciences in my C-file and elsewhere, but they really don’t, so I prefer to train in conditions of privacy to keep the extent of my expertise to myself. I end with some light moving meditation and then take my bird bath.
Around this time they are coming through the section door with chow. It’s scrambled eggs and potatoes today; it’s Tuesday. The menu never changes. You know the meal by the day of the week. We’re being served on paper trays, the food is grossly under-proportioned and ice cold. I go to the door and accept my small tray of food and sack lunch, looking at these c/o’s laugh and joke about the game they enjoyed over the weekend.
Through hooded eyes, I speak politely, thanking them for the cold food and wishing them a good morning. Startled by this response, they offer a nervous pleasantry in reply. I deposit my meal in a white paper cup, place the 2 slices of bread over it and scoop the 3-½ spoonfuls of cold cracked wheat cereal into my mouth and wash them down with some warm water.
I see this for the subtle psychological attack it is, reminding myself provocation and/or mental degradation is its intent. I form the opposite reaction, remembering there are men and women right now in some CIA blacksite prison in Uzbekistan being raped with a cattle-prod for breakfast yet maintaining their ideological integrity. I’ll do no less. The fact that they’ve been feeding me this way for 12 years and counting only strengthens my resolve. I’m desensitized by this point. I eat only to survive. I stopped eating for taste, texture or temperature years ago.
The food is grossly under-proportioned and ice cold. I see this for the subtle psychological attack it is and form the opposite reaction, remembering there are men and women right now in some CIA blacksite prison in Uzbekistan being raped with a cattle-prod for breakfast yet maintaining their ideological integrity. I’ll do no less.
I finish my “bird bath,” clean my sink, toilet, walls and floor, then sit down and eat half of my eggs and potatoes, saving the rest to eat with my lunch. My sack lunch – one slice of bread, two thin slices of bologna, a pack of two graham crackers and a small pack of almonds (12 almonds in a pack) – needs these extra calories to hold me till chow at 5 p.m.
I make my coffee pack, sit down and open my “office.” I intentionally maintain a massive workload so all of my time is consumed with activity. I am very conscious of time, of the quantity and quality of my daily service to the revolutionary cause.
I’m doing a portrait of a family who’s befriended my comrade Kambui in hopes of strengthening those social ties and displaying the quality of my/our work to a broader public audience; I’m designing new pieces for my/our greeting card line in hopes of raising funds for our progressive community development programs; I’m litigating a medical civil rights claim on behalf of a prisoner here with diabetes where I’ve been forced to file four different motions for extension of time because we’ve not been given law library access since August.
We’re supposed to get law library access today. I have several chapters and papers I have to review in various texts on economics, politics and mass psychology for a new piece we’re writing on the practice application of revolutionary scientific socialism in the U.S. today. I’m helping some good comrades gain a broader understanding of the ideas of Fanon, Marx, Engels, Mao, Trotsky and Ho Chi Minh as they relate to the ever-evolving conditions in modern society, trying to finish some work for our brothers and sisters in the progressive media and the Occupy Movement and putting the finishing touches on a Japanese cultural piece I/we initially intended to donate to the Fresno Museum of Art to auction off for the Japanese Tsunami Relief Fund but can only assume the museum director never wrote back because we are prisoners and she could not see past the propaganda of the state and its corresponding social stigma.
I take on all these projects, and more, intentionally. Enforced idleness is a key element of the sensory deprivation torture unit. The isolation is designed to concentrate the psychological impact of this endless idleness. The mind is supposed to turn in upon itself, warping reality. It is structured to re-enforce the concept that you have nothing to look forward to but the same nothing … forever. Its purpose is to break the minds of weak men, to transform them into craven informants, agents of the state, rats, debriefers.
The mind of the developed and committed revolutionary cannot be broken. Whenever it encounters such adverse conditions, it changes those conditions. I/we have no “idle time.” From the lowest, most oppressive conditions in this society, the SHU, we struggle daily to advance the progress of humanity itself.
We must work 10 times harder than any other segment of society to have the most miniscule influence on human affairs because we have such overwhelming power arrayed against us with the sole purpose of repressing our ideas – i.e., IGI (Institutional Gang Investigations), ISU (Investigations Services Unit), prison administrators, state officials, the U.S. federal government, decades of false propaganda and entrenched social stigmas which have created an aversion and irrational skepticism of anything positive and progressive originating here.
I/we have no “idle time.” From the lowest, most oppressive conditions in this society, the SHU, we struggle daily to advance the progress of humanity itself. We must work 10 times harder than any other segment of society to have the most miniscule influence on human affairs because we have such overwhelming power arrayed against us with the sole purpose of repressing our ideas.
We have a monumental task just overcoming the obstacles to communicate with you all. We have far too much work to do by writ of our chosen lifestyle to ever fall prey to such an innovation in psychological coercion. We are not simply immune, but where the truly committed are concerned, such attempts have the opposite effect: The fact that they would even attempt such attacks on dedicated servants of the people only hardens our resolve to resist. It makes us more revolutionary, better servants of the people and better men.
So I sit here for the first half of my day and work on this portrait. As I work, my thoughts tend to drift to my regrets. I’ve been imprisoned for most of my children’s lives and thoughts of their welfare and safety consume me: What are their interests and views, what do they value, what do they love? I look at the photo of my daughter Jawanda. I’ve never seen her face in real life or heard her laughter. I write them all (I have five children) at least once a month or more, but it’s been years since I’ve heard from most of them. I’m convinced my daughter Jawanda hates me for not being there for her and her brother as they grew up.
I push the thoughts away, comforted in the knowledge that my daily efforts in the cause are the greatest gift I could give them: a world where the interests of the many actually govern its direction and nature, democracy in form and not simply in word. Though I will not live to see the victorious revolutionary change for which I have labored all their lives, and will continue to for the remainder of my own, their children just might usher in this new social order on the heels of our contributions.
I hear keys as the section door opens and IGI officers enter the section wearing their arrogance and warped perceptions literally on their sleeves. They’re here to escort someone to ACH (hospital clinic). As they do so, the nurse and escort officer walk the tier dispensing medication. I accept and take my own meds, treatment for the inescapable damage done to my own mind which has manifested itself in an actual imbalance in my brain chemistry. I ask the officer, “Are they going to run law library?” They haven’t called with a list yet. But “doubt it,” he says.
I leave the door and return to my work, suppressing the sharp spike of anger at their continued refusal to allow us to access the courts to redress these inhumane violations of our rights. Another log on the pyre of the daily usurpations of our basic rights. Before I know it, it’s noon and I set my artwork aside and prepare my lunch while the news plays in the background.
I pick up the book Zamarabu sent down to me, “New Theories of Revolution” by Jack Woddis, and I pick up where I left off as I finish my meal. Most of the texts and concepts Brother Woddis is critiquing are close at hand and by the time my meal is finished and sufficiently digested, I have several tomes opened, cross-referencing ideas and concepts while I simultaneously view them through the prism of current social conditions and my own dialectical analysis.
I save two slices of bread, my apple and a slice of bologna from my lunch so I’ll have something to work forward to this evening. With that done, I turn my attention to addressing a question one of my comrades had on whether the practice of several small businesses trading among themselves to keep their overheads low equated a form of socialism, having seen the same story on PBS. I explained to the comrade his question underscores the importance of ideological development and a firm grasp of historical materialism when analyzing socio-economic phenomena.
What he had observed was a barter system amongst petty-bourgeois proprietors in an intra-class conflict with the more powerful industrial bourgeois interest – in this case Wal-Mart; this was not socialism. Those small businesses continue to offer their goods and services to consumers at a profit mark-up, continue to appropriate the surplus value of their workers’ labor, continue to support this system of white male privilege, race-class divide and rule, and labor exploitation. They are not socialist or revolutionary; quite the opposite, they are reactionary as they seek to turn back the wheel of history to the point where their mode of small production was the dominant segment of the bourgeois class base, where now they seek to bank together against the ruling bourgeois strata to keep from being cast back down into the working class because they can’t compete with the ruling bourgeois’ industrial scale mode of production and labor exploitation.
Socialism does not seek to “reform” capitalist property relations amongst the bourgeois elements; no, socialism seeks to abolish bourgeois property relations altogether. I went in depth on the question as did other comrades. Mind you, because we are in a sensory deprivation torture unit, these discussions cannot be held verbally, no. We must write them on paper, then shoot our lines and “fish” them to and fro amongst each other, sharing ideas, lending moral, emotional, psychological, material and spiritual support to one another via a piece of string and a weighted item tossed down the tier from one cell to another.
Because of blockers welded to the base of the doors and c/o’s who will snatch and break your line, this is of course difficult. But again none will deter us from exercising our fundamental human rights. We are here only because we believe the oppression of man by man should be opposed.
Because we are in a sensory deprivation torture unit, discussions cannot be held verbally. We must write them on paper, then shoot our lines and “fish” them to and fro amongst each other, sharing ideas, lending moral, emotional, psychological, material and spiritual support to one another via a piece of string and a weighted item tossed down the tier from one cell to another. Because of blockers welded to the base of the doors and c/o’s who will snatch and break your line, this is of course difficult. But again none will deter us from exercising our fundamental human rights. We are here only because we believe the oppression of man by man should be opposed.
By the time I finish, evening chow has come. I set my cake aside as a special treat for later and watch “Nightly Business Report” as I finish my meal, assessing and analyzing the daily permutations of global capitalism; then I watch BBC News and PBS Newshour. I then get back in “the office” and work on political pieces for various media interests, until I run out of gas around 8 p.m.
But I have one more thing to do. Today is special to me, and as I’ve done for the past 17 years of my imprisonment – this is now my 18th – I write a letter to my son giving him the benefit of my life’s experiences for the year, summing it up by recounting a story of children in India who are sent in bulk by labor firms to plantation factories as young as 9, 10 and 11 to pick cotton and work the gins in conditions as deplorable as those we experienced in the chattel slave epoch to develop textiles for a mega-rich British multinational. I explain to him that this was evil and how all that was necessary for such evil to continually prevail was for good people to do nothing.
I end my letter, slide it into the tray slot and sit down to enjoy a comedy program on TV while I eat the items I’ve saved from my earlier meals. Conscious of the pain in my side and health benefits of laughter, both chemically and psychologically, I release my emotional control and allow myself again to feel. I let go of the melancholy which is my constant companion and allow the mirth to strike me in the belly as the underclass antics of “Raising Hope” play across my TV.
Conscious of the pain in my side and health benefits of laughter, both chemically and psychologically, I release my emotional control and allow myself again to feel. I let go of the melancholy which is my constant companion and allow the mirth to strike me in the belly as the underclass antics of “Raising Hope” play across my TV.
I hear the section door pop, the bar box being opened and the gears being locked back in place as the other c/o passes out mail. It’s a special day, I’m expecting some mail and hoping to hear from my son. I receive a card wishing me holiday greetings from the beautiful brothers and sisters from a Pasadena community parish in solidarity with the prisoner hunger strike coalition. It fills me with gratitude and warmth. It’s 29 days old and postmarked, meaning IGI held this meager card for at least 26 days. I also get a ducat for blood draw in the morning.
I leave my door and laugh away the disappointment of not hearing from my family on this day, as I enjoy the 10 o’clock news. I see a wonderful story in honor of Muhammad Ali’s birthday, on how he defied the U.S. war machine by refusing to submit to coercion into their imperialist adventure in Vietnam. I suddenly feel even better, knowing I’m in such good company.
I look at my children’s photos and the images of Chairman Mao, Bob Marley, Jonathan Jackson and Buddha that are the only other images on my wall. I again close my eyes and ask the creator to watch over and bless my comrades, my children, my siblings, parents and all the people languishing under the yoke of this global Moloch of greed we call the capitalist “free market.” I close my eyes wondering why I heard from no one. I cut off my TV. I have an early start in the morning. I’m not as young as I used to be. Today was my birthday: Jan. 17, 2012.
Our existence here is one of struggle, of constant, ever present, inescapable daily struggle. I/we have attempted to convey this reality to you in many ways, but these are words, only valid if they serve to influence you positively in some way. What must be understood in the final analysis is we here are not “gang members” when speaking of adherents of NARN (New Afrikan Revolutionary Nation) Scientific Socialism; we are revolutionaries. We think, act and communicate differently than those who have not given their lives to the people.
I say this not to disparage anyone; it is simply a statement of fact. The Honorable Comrade George Lester Jackson stated, “Revolution is a war for the minds of the masses.” The state has buried us in these torture units specifically to ensure we cannot effectively communicate the reality of the collective subjugation of 99 percent of those in this society to the whims of an avaricious ruling elite. They seek to criminalize legitimate political discourse, to disparage the truth in favor of an ever-evolving lie. The truth of the matter is you and I both are nothing but commodities to these people, our values being exploited or intentionally suppressed as the interests of their profit margins dictate.
Saul D. Alinsky in his book “Rules for Radicals” said, “When you are trying to communicate and can’t find the point in the experience of the other party at which he can receive and understand, then you must create the experience for him.” I have tried to do that here without horrifying you. What must be understood is some of the greatest political, social, economic, cultural, scientific and military minds of our time are languishing in the short corridors and cell blocks of Pelican Bay and Corcoran SHUs. Many of you in progressive circles are familiar with my writing, but I am merely a product of the phenomenal principled men I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion and the unfinished legacy of democratic change and equalitarian struggle that is the hallmark of the evolution of civilization.
The state has buried us in these torture units specifically to ensure we cannot effectively communicate the reality of the collective subjugation of 99 percent of those in this society to the whims of an avaricious ruling elite. They seek to criminalize legitimate political discourse. Some of the greatest political, social, economic, cultural, scientific and military minds of our time are languishing in the short corridors and cell blocks of Pelican Bay and Corcoran SHUs.
Under these conditions – indeterminate SHU confinement – we have the full weight of the state arrayed against us. Our words in some instances are our only effective tools. If I/we write or say something I/we consider revolutionary, that I hope will alter the nature and structure of society and improve mankind, but in the final analysis fails to move anyone in a substantive way, it is not revolutionary or progressive. Communication that fails to effect its intent is so much idle chatter.
The concrete analysis of such concrete conditions would be nothing has been changed. The reason we commit so much time and effort into understanding the history and present interconnections of all human activity in our world is the ability to change people’s minds, to alter their perspectives so a previously hidden truth becomes self-evident. It’s a serious matter, as serious and strategic as war, because revolution is a war.
As you read this I’m waging that war now, against entrenched biases and artificial social stigmas manufactured by a specific socio-economic interest. This is why we are so hard on ourselves, why we intentionally expose ourselves to conditions that would crush most men’s minds and subsume their wills: Failure to communicate these ideas to you effectively is to fail you.
We are speaking of the future evolution of the world, of forging a society more reflective of human decency than human misery. We cannot fail. Our cause is just because our cause is you – serving the people.
It is my sincerest hope that you leave this brief discussion with not simply a greater grasp of this injustice, but more centrally with a determination to insist the state end this hidden hypocrisy. The U.S. – and the state of California – cannot continue criticizing Syria, China, Burma and Russia for their alleged repressive measures against dissent and maltreatment of political prisoners, yet continue to maintain its own domestic program of torture against political prisoners. It is inhumane, illegal, hypocritical and just plain wrong.
Our imprisonment has no bearing on the truth and validity of our ideas. If this is truly a nation which values democracy, equality, human rights and fundamental fairness as its social imperatives, surely its people cannot allow this practice of political repression to continue unchallenged. Surely you will challenge it.
Our imprisonment has no bearing on the truth and validity of our ideas. If this is truly a nation which values democracy, equality, human rights and fundamental fairness as its social imperatives, surely its people cannot allow this practice of political repression to continue unchallenged.
If nothing else, I hope sharing a day in my life will compel you to value your own a little more and cherish that of your fellow man or woman as you do your own. My/our love, loyalty and solidarity to you all … until we win or don’t lose.