VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Pathology of the SHU

By Andrea Linefsky – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

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by Ifoma Modibo Kambon (Daryel Burnett)

Prison mirrors society, surrounded by a landscape of electrified barb wire fences, warning signs for trespassers—and gun towers are concrete structures of pathological incubators which breed psychological trauma. This experience was especially true for thousands of men subjected to decades of prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation in a restrictive environment. Not a single individual was unaffected nor immune from the state’s repressive program of behavior modification. In its extremity, the mind is decapitated from the body, the body decapitated from the spirit. “Pathology of the SHU” is based on my personal observations and reflections on the systemic mental incapacitation of other human beings. Borne out of the initial shock of imprisonment, a dehumanizing process set in motion an idea that regarded some human beings’ worth or value to be less than other human beings. Their personhood became less valuable than a chimpanzee imprisoned at the local zoo. Stripped of the moral or ethical values of our human identity, our lives became viewed from within the prism of a concrete cage. The moral justification in considering prisoners as less than a human person is based on the pseudo-science of criminology. This is the same science that determines what constituted criminology by the measurement of a person’s skull or smile. We became ‘worst of the worst’ without any redeemable qualities.

Decades of being warehoused inside an unnatural environment produced unnatural thoughts and behavior. Captivity robs us of identity. Think for a moment about the common threads between prisons, circuses, and zoos. Such an approach will better understand how many men lost their human spirit. The commonality between the three is the feature of denaturing. People by their very nature are social beings. Both their individual and collective identity is formed through their interaction with other people within a social context.

So my story is about how human beings became invisible and different. It wasn’t until my experiences at Folsom and San Quentin that I began to seriously take note of the psychological effects prison life was having on other prisoners. I began to reflect on all the horrors I personally observed. I concluded that the dependency complex is the source of the psychosis. At times this complex borders on anxiety, stress, mild depression, frustration, and alienation. Often the cause of the complex is putting up with the constant bullshit and denials. How do we cope with the denials and responsibilities of being men, fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins, and friends?

The dependency complex also creates disappointment and anger. The disappointments led to mood swings, loss of interest, and restlessness. Some individuals became so lethargic they took on the behavior traits of a pigeon: eat, sleep, and shit in order to pass the time. Others felt hopeless and helpless, losing their spirit to fight. Some chose to deal with their pain by suicide, others chose self-mutilation. I also heard the deafening screams, cries, and incomprehensible mutterings of men’s minds succumbing to madness. They became victim to the pathological incubator.

In order to talk about my 38 years of being warehoused inside the security housing unit (SHU) … I was given a 9-month SHU term for a rule infraction, ultimately being warehoused in SHU indefinitely. I was told by the administrators of these golden gulags that I was a threat to inmates, staff, and the security of the institution. I am always asked how did I survive decades of solitary confinement. It was an environment that gave me guidance, direction, and purpose. The environment was conducive to learning and teaching, because each one of us were held accountable for our actions. During daytime hours, we had quiet periods in which no talking over the tier was allowed. This time was used for self-reflection. There was a quiet period for both study and exercising. At no time was loud, disrespectful conversation permitted over the tier. We existed as a community. It was here I rediscovered my humanity, and it was here we practiced community values. I was introduced to the book Autobiography of Malcolm X. Most importantly he showed me the possibility of change, transformation, and redemption. The possibility of rebirth.

My early education in the SHU challenged me to think before acting, and made me understand that our strengths and courage are forged by our willingness to not be afraid or undaunted by the challenges or difficulties.

But this is not to say I was unaffected by the psychological sufferings of other prisoners. The continued years in SHU produced migraine headaches; for others it marked the endless engagements in self-dehumanizing acts. Physically I was beginning to undergo internal changes that neither “will” or “determination” was able to resist. Some prisoners who were experiencing the same impulses acted differently. They reacted by throwing food, feces, urine, and kicked on the cell doors, exemplifying the behavior of a caged animal who is now on display at the local zoo.

In order to cope with the stress, I adopted a vigorous program of exercise, meditation, reading, and playing chess. As time passed, even the infallible prisoners using constructive physical and mental exercise in restraint found themselves expressing bitterness and anger in a descriptive manner. My only way of doing time had been interrupted, my tolerance snapped. I began hollering at those who I classified as fools, telling them to shut up or hang themselves. The noise was nerve-racking and disruptive to say the least. Somehow my own humanity was under assault. I became argumentative with folks suffering mental problems. Instead of separating people suffering from mental trauma, the administrators mix them in with other prisoners. No one became immune from the psychological incubator.

The classification committee’s job is to determine whether a SHU prisoner is eligible for placement in the general population. The only possible eligibility for placement in the general population was our willingness to submit to the terms for release. These terms are anchored to a process which entails informing (snitching) on prisoners by prisoners. Information may not be new or true. Year after year, decade after decade, we were exposed to pathological conditions that ruin hundreds of minds.

Can you imagine being invisible, without a voice?

Can you imagine being constantly told that the only way to gain relief from these conditions is if we debrief by becoming informants? Hundreds of men chose this path rather than suffer prolonged isolation; for others it meant becoming invisible. It meant having shit and piss thrown on you by men whose minds succumbed to madness. It meant the screaming and yelling of broken minds. It meant mail never received in its real time and space because of the gang censors. It meant presumption and fear-mongering became the new regulations. It meant parole denials because we refuse to become rats. It meant the constant bullshit of denials one puts up with daily. It meant no human contact with family or friends. It meant no telephone calls to family or friends. It meant living in a dungeon for decades. It meant being told that the only way to better health care is if we debrief. It meant that we were allowed only a 15-minute phone call when our family member passed away. It meant 15 goddamn minutes to express condolences, listen and talk to people for the first time in decades. It meant living in a prison hundreds of miles from home. It meant having to share a jacket with other prisoners. It meant having to use a dog toothbrush because regular toothbrushes were security threats. It meant constantly appealing to the courts for relief, but being denied time and time again. It meant visitors behind glass, and visitors being subjected to the disrespect of the guards. It meant little children unable to embrace their daddies.

I became tired of being so tired, but kept on pushing. Culture and prison activism were criminalized. It meant the criminalization of dissent. It meant the criminalization of art. It meant the criminalization of assembly, speech, and association. It meant through dehumanization we were “the worst of the worst.” It meant walking everywhere in your shorts or having to squat and cough to go to the yard by yourself. It meant the state-paid psychologists supporting the inhumanity of solitary confinement. It meant overwhelming stress from the violence of gunshots and stabbings.

It meant hearing your father’s voice for the last time. It meant feeling the guilt of not being there for family and friends in a meaningful way. It meant no phones while you awaited the news no one wants to receive, death phone calls. It meant after a year of not hearing from my mother, and when I hear some news about her she was given two weeks to live, but dies days later. It meant the enormous grief, pain, and resiliency of watching my father, mother, sister, son, brother, all die in consecutive years.

This story is about struggle, pain, hope, and suppression. Most importantly it is about the men whose spirits, minds, and bodies survived. It was the bond that we had with each other that helped forge the courage and strength to resist the campaign to destroy our minds, bodies, and spirits. This story is not only about me, but rather the community of men who understood that there’s strength in our commonality of struggle. We put aside our artificial differences and answered the revolutionary call to organize, to put aside our differences and build collective will and purpose. This is for the men who maintain their self-respect, dignity, and honor.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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