Video Interview With Kiilu Nyasha: America’s Supermax Prisons Do Torture

Kiilu Nyasha is a San Francisco-based journalist and former member of the Black Panther Party (BPP). Kiilu hosts a weekly TV program, “Freedom Is A Constant Struggle,” on SF Live (Comcast 76 and AT&T 99), which can be viewed live here on Friday at 7:30 pm (PST), and rebroadcast Saturdays at 3:30 p.m., and Mondays, 6:30 p.m. She writes for several publications, including the SF Bay View Newspaper and Also an accomplished radio programmer, she has worked for KPFA (Berkeley), SF Liberation Radio, Free Radio Berkeley, and KPOO in SF. Some of her work is archived at and

This new video interview conducted in November, 2009 in San Francisco, is based on a recent article by Nyasha, entitled “America’s Supermax Prisons Do Torture.” This full article is featured below. For more about Nyasha, please read the recent Black Commentator interview with her, entitled “Media, Revolution and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party.”

President Barack Obama has clearly stated, “We don’t torture.”

Oh, yes we do. Big time.

A myriad of studies have clearly shown that human beings are social creatures – making prolonged isolation torture.

The New Yorker published an article March 30, 2009 by Atul Gawande titled, “Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?”

Gawande asks, “If prolonged isolation is – as research and experience have confirmed for decades –so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?”

By 2000, some 60 supermax prisons had been opened nationwide, in addition to new isolation units in nearly all maximum-security prisons.

The first such gulag was established in 1983 in Marion, Illinois. In 1989, California opened Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border housing over 1,200 captives. It’s been the model for dozens of other states to follow. The SHU (Security Housing Unit) is entirely windowless, and from inside a cell with doors perforated with tiny holes, prisoners can only see the hallway.

They’re confined 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year with just a brief time (when permitted) in the “dog run” or outdoor enclosure for solitary exercise with no equipment, not even a ball.

But after nearly 20 years, California is now holding more people in solitary than ever; yet its gang problem is worse, and the violence rates have actually gone up.

Nationwide, at least 25,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement with another 50-80,000 in segregation units, many additionally isolated but those numbers are not released.

According to the Washington Post, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Prisons reported there are 216 so-called international terrorists and 139 so-called domestic terrorists currently in federal facilities (I’m convinced the real terrorists are on Capitol Hill). No one has ever escaped from these “most secure prisons.”

In a 60 Minutes segment titled, “Supermax: A Clean Version of Hell (revisited),” June 21, 2009, the reporters took cameras into the ADX-Florence, Colorado Supermax where there have been six wardens since it opened in 1994. It’s where Imam Jalil al-Amin and Mutulu Shakur are held captive, along with myriad other political prisoners.

One former warden stated, “I don’t know what hell is, but I do know the assumption would be, for a free person, it’s pretty close to it.”

“Supermax is the place America sends the prisoners it wants to punish the most – a place the warden described as a clean version of hell.”

In a national study (Hayes and Rowan 1988) of 401 suicides in U.S. prisons — one of the largest studies of its kind — two out of every three people who committed suicide were being held in a control unit.

In one year, 2005, a record 44 prisoners killed themselves in California alone; 70 percent of those suicides occurred in segregation units

Bret Grote is an investigator and organizer with Human Rights Coalition/Fed Up!, a prisoner rights/prison abolitionist organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In the Angola 3 Newsletter, Grote details how HRC/Fed Up! Documented many hundreds of human rights abuses in Pennsylvania’s 27 prisons. Their investigations concluded that Pennsylvania is “operating a sophisticated program of torture under an utterly baseless pretext of ‘security,’ wherein close to 3,000 people are held in conditions of solitary/control unit confinement each day.”

Supermax prisons can also contain death rows where prisoners can spend decades in isolation, torture, with the added torment of impending execution. One obvious example is the highly political case of former Black Panther, journalist and author, Mumia Abu-Jamal, falsely convicted of killing a cop in 1981. Despite hard evidence of innocence, he’s still locked up in SCI Green, a Pennsylvania Supermax, after 27 years on death row and the signing of two death warrants.

These conditions are a flagrant violation of article 6 of the U.S. Constitution which affirms that treaty law (i.e. international law) is the “supreme law of the land.” Thus, article 10 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stipulates that “The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation.”

Contrary to the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key rhetoric of politicians, A Zogby poll released in April 2006 found 87 percent of Americans favor rehabilitative services for prisoners as opposed to punishment only.

The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, a bipartisan national task force, produced a study after a yearlong investigation (2005-2006) that called for ending long-term solitary confinement of prisoners. The report found practically no benefits and plenty of harm – for prisoners and the public.

One of the most egregious cases of prolonged torture is the politically-charged isolation of Hugo Pinell still held in Pelican Bay’s SHU after nearly 20 years. For his active resistance back in the 1960s and assault conviction in the San Quentin Six case (1976), my dear friend has spent a total of 40 years in hellholes – 45 of his 64 years in California prisons.

“In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation,” writes Gawande, “ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement – on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a 30-minute drive from my home.”

In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche, Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!

Power to the people!

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2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Joe Bryak said on November 28th, 2009 at 10:20pm #

    Over and over we read how some real bad actors–people who kill and maim even total strangers with no warning–getting a minimal sentence and getting out, only to do it again–surprise! this, compared with people like Ruchel Magee, who was originally convicted of nothing more serious than having a physical beef with a guy over a dime bag of weed. After SEVEN YEARS for this nothing crime, Magee by a stroke of fate happened to be present when Jonathan Jackson made his move to free his brother, George, in that ill-fated action in a Marin County Courthouse. Magee is still inside, after over 44 years for what was originally really just some little misdemeanor thing.
    Where is the justice? We won’t even speak of those who have their hands on the wheels of power in governmnt who have the blood of millions on their hands.
    And now we have these fools in power having the nerve to say those in captivity in Guantanamo are too diabolically smart and dangerous to be allowed to set foot in a U.S. prison, even supermax. What a farce! To begin with, over 2/3 of those imprisoned in Guantanamo have been released, representatives of the U.S. government itself FINALLY admitting that the majority of these people just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, were innocent people turned in for bounty money by opportunistic greedheads in the neighborhood, etc. And we’re supposed to believe these ignant-ass congresspeople who jump up on chairs and cry “EEK! A mouse!” at the thought of the danger it would pose if some half-naked, tormented and tortured lost soul would be shackled in a windowless dungeon in his or her state. The danger, of course, is that the public would then find out what a shameful travesty of justice this all is, *were the facts known!*
    The inmates are truly in charge of the asylum.
    I don’t know what his original offense (if any) may have been, 2 generations ago (!), but by now 64-year-old Hugo Pinell is akin to being his own grandfather. It is high time that those in power loosen their clutching fingers from their jailers’ keys and release these long-term prisoners who prove themselves to be no danger to anyone (let alone, of all things, prove to be innocent of any crime in the first place!). Let punishment–or confinement–fit the crime, independently of any considerations of political advantage to the jailers or officeholders.

  2. Annie Ladysmith said on November 29th, 2009 at 12:08am #

    SOLITARY FREAKING CONFINEMENT just how is this worst than getting gang-banged by your cell mates?? JUST PLEASE TELL ME! You people are so utterly ridiculous you all should go and spend a month in one of these places and then tell me what you like better, gang-banged or solitary?? There is REAL torture going on that is a lot more serious than this, like the Abu Gharib debacle, and people tazored to death for not putting their freaking hands up fast enough….WRITE ABOUT SOMETHING IMPORTANT!