I would like to begin by thanking the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown and the National Committee to Free Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and POWs for the opportunity to share a few reflections with you. It is a tremendous privilege to be among so many of you who have worked with such courage and persistence in the struggle for justice and liberation. I visited the new Supermax Control Unit Prison at Florence, Colorado, two times - once, about a year ago, before it opened, when we got to go back and actually see the cells, and again, about six months ago, when I visited with several prisoners there. My reflections are limited to my experience at Florence, which is the only control unit prison I have personally visited. But I hope that they will be applicable to the broader campaign to abolish control units, and to the prison movement more generally.
I'd like to thank Alan Berkman for his moving description of his experience at Marion. But for me, it's hard to put in words exactly what's so horrible about these prisons. Perhaps others of you who have visited them can understand what I mean when I say that the evil of the whole is somehow even worse than the sum of its parts. The sensory deprivation; the shackling and strip searches; the lack of color, scenery, and fresh air; the disorienting, triangular-shaped recreation rooms; the practically non-existent library and educational opportunities; the utter denial of human contact; even the employment of Ph.D.'s in psychology to help create and maintain an environment of psychic torture - taken together, somehow these still don't fully convey the horror of the place.
But in the long run, I am not sure which is worse: the prison system's creation of such an evil, or the public's toleration (and worse, outright welcome) of it. After the heartbreak of Plexiglas separating prisoners from their loved ones and the knowledge of the strip searches and other forms of torture to which the prisoners will return, a visitor emerges from the Florence dungeon to a booming housing market and prosperity made possible by the very torture which takes place in that dungeon.
I'm sure that there are a lot of good people in Florence. People who go to church, pay their taxes, keep up their property, join the PTA, don't personally rob or murder anyone, and who wouldn't mind if a Black family moved next door. In short, people who try to lead decent lives as responsible citizens. Unfortunately, so did the good Christians and citizens of Nazi Germany.
It's hard for us, fifty years and an ocean away, to understand how the "good" people of Germany could have allowed their government to commit such atrocities in their name. In our own context, however, it's a little easier for us to understand how the "good" people of the USA could allow "our" government to commit such atrocities in our name. For we know how ignorance, fear, apathy, and economic hardship conspire to make "good" people willing, and even eager, to participate in torture and oppression - particularly if they can convince themselves that the people they are torturing really are something less than fully human - as did the "good" people of Florence who actually raised money so that the prison would be built in their back yard.
Eventually, the conscience of at least a few people in Nazi Germany was finally awakened. A few people who realized that in the face of such terrible evil, it was not enough simply to be "good" people who go to church, pay their taxes, keep up their property, join the PTA, and refrain from personally robbing or murdering people. People who realized that extraordinary evil demands an extraordinary response.
I don't need to tell you that we are facing just such a time of extraordinary evil in our national life. A time of overt racism - as exemplified in every aspect of the criminally unjust system called by the misnomer of "criminal justice." A time of brutal capitalism which makes even Reaganomics seem "kinder and gentler" in comparison. A time of grave political and ideological repression, as particularly manifest in the proliferation of control unit prisons designed to destroy the spirit.
And, like the good people of Germany, we must choose. We must choose whether we can simply continue going to church, paying our taxes, keeping up our property, joining the PTA, and simply refraining from personal acts of robbery or murder, while allowing the torture and warehousing of a million and a half, mostly Black and Latino and Latina men and women, to continue.
Last December, several organizations involved in addressing various aspects of the criminally unjust penal system decided that it was time to act. At a meeting in Philadelphia convened by the American Friends' Service Committee and greatly inspired by your work here at CEML and the National Committee, we gave birth to a new campaign: The Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons. We committed ourselves to monitor conditions in control unit prisons across the country, and seek to resist, and eventually to abolish, all control unit prisons.
Various participating organizations have experienced some successes this year. Three political prisoners at Florence - Oscar Lopez, Tom Manning, and Mutulu Shakur - have begun the transition process out of the control unit at Florence (let's hope, and keep the pressure on, to make sure that this transition continues!), and Sanyika Shakur is out of prison, although he was not able to be with us in person today. But to be honest, there have been some bumps in the road. We were perhaps unrealistic in our initial plans, and suffered from the lack of an adequate structure to carry the campaign forward as effectively as we would have hoped.
Today, we have been hard at work to create a structure that will make it easier for us to work towards our goal of abolishing all control unit prisons. We have mounted an action campaign against the Marianna control unit prison; are planning another campaign next February on behalf of Ojore Lutalo, who has suffered ten years in isolation; committed ourselves to a coordinated series of hearings and actions across the country to call attention to control unit prisons; and created an emergency network to respond to emergencies pertaining to control unit conditions and prisoners.
Extraordinary evil demands resistance. On behalf of our entire campaign, I hope you will join us in our effort to end this sophisticated hi-tech form of evil in our midst.