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Understanding the Role of Police Towards Abolitionism: On Black Death as an American Necessity, Abolition, Non-Violence, and Whiteness

{Photo credit: Ashley Landis/AP}

By Joshua Briond

In Blood In My Eye, the late great George Jackson writes: “the purpose of the chief repressive institutions within the totalitarian capitalist state is clearly to discourage and prohibit certain activity, and the prohibitions are aimed at very distinctly defined sectors of the class—and race— sensitized society. The ultimate expression of law is not order—it’s prison. There are hundreds upon thousands of laws, yet there is no social order, no social peace. Anglo-Saxon bourgeois law is tied firmly into economics[…]Bourgeois law protects property relations and not social relationships.”  And while thousands across the country take to the streets to protest state violence, in the aftermath of the public lynching of George Floyd, we have been seeing the structural reality the likes of George Jackson (amongst other Black political prisoners and revolutionaries) brilliantly and elegantly theorized on and experienced, once again holds true.

In this moment, it is crucial to understand the role of the police at their core, as merely a hyper-militarized bottom of the barrel armed force of the ruling class. Our ruling class owned media tries to portray both state and federal level police as neutral actors enforcing public safety—when in fact their role has always served to disrupt (radical) political activity by any means necessary. The past few days have sprung speculation regarding the police and media conspiring and exporting counterinsurgency—which is clearly happening. But what if, instead, we saw policing under white supremacist capitalism as inherently and in a constant state of counterinsurgency—because such an act is how empire sustains itself—especially if we know that, historically, police have surveilled, repressed and infiltrated individuals, organizations, and political parties that they have deemed ideological enemies because their interests represent a legitimate threat to the capitalist white supremacist status quo.

“Power responds to all threats. The response is repression. If the threat is a small one, the fascist tactic is to laugh it off, ignore it, isolate it with greater the corresponding violence from power. The only effective challenge to power is one that is broad enough to make isolation impossible, and intensive enough to cause repression to affect the normal lifestyle of as many members of the society as possible[…] Nothing can bend consciousness more effectively than a false arrest, a no-knock invasion, careless, panic-stricken gunfire.”

—George Jackson (Blood In My Eye)

The issue is not simply “police brutality.” But, the mere existence and functionality of the inherently anti-black, subservient to capital institution of polic[e/ing]. “Police brutality” like many liberalized frameworks, individualizes structural oppression and power. Such framing leaves space for reformism, as if there’s only certain aspects of policing that needs to be readdressed. It’s an undeniable fact that technically “not all cops kill” but instead of moral posturing, we can focus on the political and ideological functioning of policing in service of whiteness, capital(ism), and settler-colonialism, as being in direct contradiction of the lives and well-being of racialized, colonized, and working-class people. Focusing the problem on the mere existence of polic[e/ing], as an institutionalized direct descendant of chattel slavery previously branded ‘slave patrolling,’ we’re able to discuss the inherent (racialized & class-based) violences within the institution at-large. And it allows us to reckon with the entire institution instead of individual actors, their political or moral standing, as well as individualized notions of “justice” in the face of terror, violence, and death at the hands of the police. “Justice” under this racial capitalism, is an impossibility—an ideological liberal mystification. The scarcity in the realm of political imagination that [neo]liberalism champions leads to a reality in which many people’s analysis and understanding of “justice” is merely individualized imprisonment and tepid-at-best liberal reforms. Advancing our collective understanding beyond the individual “bad” or killer cop toward an understanding of structural violence, is crucial to building an abolitionist politic grounded in empathy and community.

We have been bombarded with dozens of videos and photos of cops kneeling, crying, giving impassioned speeches, and public displays of some of the most shallowest forms of performative solidarity—an age-old tactic wielded to “humanize” officers and neutralize the perceived threat in the protesters, while also attempting to control the media narrative —only for these same cops to turn around and within minutes unleash terror on the self-proclaimed “peaceful” protesters as they chant and march in-advocacy for the ending of Black terror and death at the hands of the police. If the mere pleading for the ruling class and its on-the-ground agents to stop massacring Black people with impunity is enough of a crime to be met with chemical warfare, “rubber” bullets, harassment, beatings, and mass imprisonment—what does that say about the functionality of these institutions?

When we see agents of the ruling class in militarized “riot” gear, oftentimes comment sections filled with disapproval, American liberals claiming “they look like they’re in war,” and viral tweets from imperialist veterans not-so-subtly declaring that type of militancy should be preserved for Black and brown people and countries abroad—and not home. We must counter these liberal narratives by highlighting that there is no significant political, ideological, or moral difference between domestic police and the military. Both serve the same class and ideological apparatus and represent an occupying force wherever they’re stationed. The military predominantly operates as the global police of the world, or as George Jackson would call it the “international wing of repressive institutions.” But, when the domestic police are overwhelmed, they call in their big brother (US military) to help fight their battle—hand-and-hand as enemies of the people—in a mission to terrorize and politically repress racialized, colonized, and working class people. So when Trump says “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and grants the military immunity to terrorize and shoot protesters that is nothing more than the head of empire simply carrying on the legacy of terrorists-in-chief before him, reaffirming the purpose of the mere existence of the military, as fascist enforcers of capitalist, colonial, and imperialist violence and their right to do what they already do to colonized and oppressed people in third world and global south countries.

We must realize that we mustn’t give cops, in all forms, the benefit of the doubt or go out of our way to plead to their conscience—in which most, if not all of them lack—because their articulation of the situation at hand, as evidenced by their preparedness and tactics, is that of war. And in all of its possibly well-meaning glory, going into battle with the mindset of pleading to their (lack of) conscience or going out of your way to prove you’re one of the “good” and “peaceful” protesters—through chants and other means—won’t stop the terror of chemical warfare that will transpire when the political performance ends. The police are uncompromising in their belief in the current oppressive social order, they have legally, morally, and politically pledged their lives to it, and we must be uncompromising in our fight towards tearing it down and building anew. There’s a reason cops show up to even the most “peaceful” of protests with militarized riot gear prepared at any moment to immobilize activists, organizers, and journalists while conspiring with the media apparatus to demonize protests and all of its participants.

 “The political act is defined as criminal in order to discredit radical and revolutionary movements. A political event is reduced to a criminal event in order to affirm the absolute invulnerability of the existing order.”

 —Angela Davis (If They Come in the Morning)

The nearly non-materially existing dichotomy between “good protester” and “bad protester” or “non-violent” and “violent” are not only useless identifiers, but an unfortunate fundamental misunderstanding of the structural powers that be, at-large. The ideology of Black liberation is inherently violent to the forces of capital and white supremacy. We must move beyond the media fueled tropes rooted in colonial moral posturing, that serves no one but our ruling elites. History has shown us, it does not matter whether or not you’re a “good protester” or “bad protester,” “non-violent” or “violent,” and/or “innocent” or “guilty.” If you are for liberation for Black people, you are a threat to the interests of capitalism and white supremacy, and must be systemically repressed, by any means. To fight for the liberation of Black people, especially but not limited to the skin that has historically marked criminality, makes you an enemy of said nation who’s global economy is predicated on the terror and death of the colonial, namely Black, subject. Liberation, and the pursuit of it becomes a racialized affair under a system of colonial and imperialist domination in-which whiteness—a system of racial othering—is exclusively depicted as proximity to power and capital, which Black and other subjects of said domination have neither. It is crucial for the sustainment of this moment that we, first of all, not allow media political discourse to divide and conquer the wide variety of effective tactics that have been wielded by activists and organizers since the beginning of time; while also collectively understand the functionality of police and prisons as they are: inherently anti-Black politicized tools of the ruling elite to maintain their hegemony.

“The legal apparatus designates the Black liberation fighter a criminal, prompting Nixon, Agnew, Reagan et al. to proceed to mystify with their demagogy millions of Americans whose senses have been dulled and whose critical powers have been eroded by the continual onslaught of racist ideology. As the Black Liberation Movement and other progressive struggles increase in magnitude and intensity, the judicial system and its extension, the penal system, consequently become key weapons in the state’s fight to preserve the existing conditions of class domination, therefore racism, poverty and war.”

—Angela Davis (If They Come in the Morning)

Our understanding of non-violence should be that of an organized and meticulous tactical approach exercised by the oppressed, as opposed to a moral philosophy, endorsed and preferred by the ruling class and its agents. We never hear the ruling class, advocate for non-violence with their singular approach when they are hegemonizing and tyrannizing oppressed peoples across the globe, while being cheered on and thanked by many of its citizens. Non-violence, as a moral philosophy, in a society where violence against the marginalized is the norm—where millions are incarcerated, houseless, subjected to state sanctioned violence, and live in poverty—is, in and of itself just another form of colonial physical and ideological subjugation and therefore, violence. But, so much of non-violence is predicated on the premise of legality—despite its social and political limitations. Laws are only laws because we, whether knowingly or not, coercively consent to them. At any given time our government can utilize and maneuver the boundaries of legality and illegality as applicable to the material interests of the ruling class. What we’re seeing on live display is the state and all of its willing agents and participants are very much willing to terrorize and self-detonate than grant Black people even the slightest bit of freedom; and history has shown us it is not only appropriate but necessary to meet them with the only language that they understand.

As Kwame Ture has noted, public pleas and non-violence only works when your opponent has a conscience, and the United States of America has none. Therefore, we must move beyond public outcries for vague calls for “love,” “unity,” and “peace,” waxing poetic, and pleading for our oppressors to somehow manage to adopt a conscience and do what goes against the very ideological and economic foundation of all their colonial institutions: stop terrorizing and killing us. We must move beyond the cycle of inaction and emotional appeals, through stagnantly and continuously debating the semantics of ‘Black Lives Matter’ and other moral and political posturing, when the reality of our situation is clear: Black lives can never truly matter under captivity of white supremacist capitalism and colonial patriarchy that directly and consequently begets Black oppression. How can it, when Black death is a necessity of racial capitalism and the institutions (such as policing and prisons) that exist to uphold it? So instead of public appeals to the ruling class and its agents to recognize the “humanity” in those relegated to slave; we recognized the reality in which racialized terror and violence is quite literally the point—as the mere existence of Black lives are in direct and inherent contradiction with the forces of capital—and a necessity for the continued maintenance of the current white supremacist capitalist, imperialist, (settler-)colonial order. It is crucial for us to remember that these institutions, namely policing and prisons, that continue to so violently persist, are merely an extension of European colonialism and slavery.

“…with each reform, revolution became more remote[…]But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define [fascism] in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be ‘reform.’”

—George Jackson (Blood In My Eye)

The only realistic solution to a reality in which anti-Black terror, violence, and death is an inevitability to the functionality of a system, is abolition. Yet, ironically enough, the lack of political imagination, beyond the electoral strategy and reformism, and the inability to envision a world, or even country, devoid of police and prisons is rooted in (anti-Black), racialized colonial logics of the biologically determined criminal, slave, and savage. The notion that an (uncivilized) people must to be, at all times, patrolled and policed, or else chaos and violence would reign, has been used as a justification for countless structural violences on the part of European peoples since the origins of colonialism. If we know criminality is inherently racialized, one must ask themselves: when you envision the criminal and/or “evildoer,” what do you see? What do they look like? More than likely it is someone who is non-white and/or poor. This is something we have to seriously grapple with, even amongst abolitionist circles. The vast majority of people who, for whatever reason, are incapable of envisioning a world without police and prisons, are simply unwilling to interrogate the dominant ideological apparatus that we have all, in one way or another, internalized.

Emphasizing the largely classed and gendered based nature of crime, is of the utmost importance. Crime is not an “inevitable” aspect of society, but an inevitable reaction to socio-economic and political structural forces at-large; specifically poverty being an inevitability of capitalism while sexual, gendered, and domestic violences are an inevitability of colonial patriarchy. If we combat the systems, we combat the social reactions.

Another thing we’re witnessing is white people moralizing the looting, destruction of, and “violence” towards inanimate objects (despite the fact that white history is that of constant looting, destruction, and violence) as result of their moral, spiritual, and political ties to land, property, monuments, and capital built on genocide and slavery. Whiteness being so inextricable to the foundations of capital(ism) and ultimately property, inhibits white people’s ability to extend such an empathy to the lives of Black people. Property and capital, being so inextricable to the foundations of whiteness and the construction of race, as a whole, ushers in the reality in which they become God-like figures. White people’s existence on this planet and their understanding of the world makes so much more sense once you realize that, white people, globally, are the police. Whiteness allows and entails them the “monopoly on morality” to be such a thing. Whether it’s with foreign affairs, and their paternalistic analysis of non-white countries, which ultimately leads to the justifying the actions of their imperialist government—even from “socially conscious” white folks. Or, in the case of how they overwhelmingly believe they maintain the prerogative to dictate the ways subjects of white oppression retaliate against said oppression (though, to be fair, they technically do). But, the point is: the entire logic of whiteness, as a deliberately political and social invention, makes it such a construct that’s—under white supremacy—inseparable from the role of the state. therefore, white people assume these roles as agents of the state globally—whether subconsciously or not.

And, of course, this is why we have been subjected to countless imagery on social media of white people (and those aspiring to be white by-way-of proximity to capital, power, and “respectability”) putting their bodies and lives on the line to protect capital (and physical embodiments of it) and private property—in a way that they would never sacrifice their bodies or even time for Black lives and liberation. Such an imagery should serve as a spit in the face to not just Black people, but all persons concerned with our liberation from the chains of capital. If persons of the white race are willing to put their lives on the line for their god: property and capital, but wouldn’t bother doing such a thing for Black people: what does that say about how they see us? We’re beneath inanimate objects on the hierarchy of things worthy of protection. But, it also just goes to show that as much as the white American is willing to die for property relations and capital—by any means necessary—we must be willing to live and die for our collective liberation. Let this be a moment in which we’re reminded that if there’s ever scenario in which our ruling elites are ever in-need of more armed protectors of the white supremacist status quo there will be countless ordinary white people, at the front of the line, fully prepared to live out their white vigilante idealizations and sacrifice their lives and bodies to save settler capitalism.


‘A World Turned Upside Down’: How Slavery Morphed into Today’s Carceral State

The origins of modern mass incarceration, and its targeting of black offenders, are often traced back to the 1980s and the emergence of the war on drugs, but the roots go far deeper, according to a new book on American slavery.

In Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader And His Cargo Of Black ConvictsJeff Forret, a historian and a Distinguished Faculty Research Fellow at Lamar University, traces the ordeals of 27 enslaved black criminals at the hands of a Washington, D.C. slave trader whose questionable actions led to them serving a dozen years each in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The book follows his earlier work, Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South (LSU Press, 2015), which won the 18th annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize.

In a conversation with TCR, Forret recounts how the economic needs of depressed regions in the old Confederacy fueled the transformation of freed slaves into cheap indentured labor, how for-profit prisons in the 20th century earned billions by continuing the practice, and how modern American policing has been distorted by the “slave patrols” that once restricted the movements of African Americans.

This is an edited and slightly condensed version of the conversation.

The Crime Report: What motivated you to write this book?

Jeff Forret: I didn’t start out with any kind of agenda. I just wanted to tell a story. I was doing research on a previous book, Slave Against Slave: Plantation Violence In The Old South, that looked at conflict within the slave community and in slave quarters. I went to Baton Rouge because I wanted to see if there were any lists of enslaved people (incarcerated) in the Louisiana State Penitentiary for committing crimes against other enslaved people. Louisiana was almost unique in terms of southern states during the slavery era in incarcerating enslaved people for crimes. I found a list of ten names [under the heading] “Williams’ Negroes.” I did similar research in Virginia, and at the tail end of one of these rolls of microfilm, there was a list of names of enslaved people sold out of the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1840. They were the same names I had seen listed as the Williams’ slaves in the Louisiana records.

coverThe book began as just me trying to figure out what was going on here. After the Civil War, there was a pretty big turnaround in terms of incarceration. For example, in Louisiana, in 1860, two-thirds of all the Louisiana State Penitentiary prisoners were white. Eight years later, two-thirds of their inmates were black. that flip only took eight years and it was replicated in other states.

We know about the rise of mass incarceration, which really took off in the 1980s with the war on drugs, as well as the emergence of for-profit prisons. But my research shows that the history of black incarceration goes further back in time still. I found enslaved people variously locked up in city or local jails, in private slave pens, in state penitentiaries; and those are only the ones that entered the formal legal system. Most didn’t. There were also private plantation prisons, the dungeons under the plantation house, and the “hot boxes” they used.

TCR: How did American slavery transition to the prison industrial complex of today?

JF: Basically, with the Civil War over and slavery abolished, people realized that the criminal justice system could be used for racial and social control. They could fill up these jails with allegedly troublesome black people. It didn’t take long, however, before the number of black prisoners outgrew the number of incarceration facilities. At that point, you start to see the rise of various convict leasing systems, where prisoners are rented out to private companies or individuals. Again, you’re still making a profit for people who are criminalizing black behavior. Those convict lease systems eventually are reformed or fall by the wayside as we enter the first few decades of the 20th century, but the same kinds of things continue. The next really big innovation comes with the war on drugs in the 1980s. This is also when we see the emergence of private for-profit prison systems. Today, there are basically two major for-profit prison companies that are each worth pretty close to $2 billion apiece. All in all, it’s a $5 billion industry. These are people making a lot of money through a process that is much the same as the one a slave trader or a slave owner used before the Civil War.

TCR: How has the history of black enslavement contributed to our society’s understanding of African-Americans’ struggle with our criminal justice system?

 JF: When slavery was abolished, the world of southern whites was completely turned upside down. The criminalization of black behavior was a way to make sure that subjugation in various ways continued. It became a self-fulfilling cycle, where people are going to assume that black people are criminals and then that is going to further lead to continued incarceration. And the cycle is just going to repeat itself over time. I think that the residue of slavery was never really shaken off. It’s manifested in the criminal justice system in some pretty horrific ways that are still very much present.

TCR: How is the legacy of profiting from enslavement in the past utilized by private for-profit prisons today?

JF: These facilities are typically erected in rural places that are often economically depressed. They build facilities that have “x” number of beds in them and, for that facility to reach maximum profitability, those beds all need to be full. There is a whole process where prisoners are shipped around from one facility to the next. If there are too many prisoners in one area, they are sent to another area. They’re trafficking in inmates to fulfill the needs these facilities have. And they have various kinds of work programs for inmates, where they pay them pennies to produce something they can turn around and sell. That’s how they make billions in profits. You have a confined and restricted population, which is disproportionately black and other people of color, that is moved around to where their labor is in demand to make money for someone else. These are all features of the slave trade.

TCR: Are the slave catchers of the past connected to today’s police forces? 

JF: I open with slave patrols in the first chapter. These slave patrols were among the earliest police forces in the old south. Their task was to monitor black behavior. Enslaved people were not supposed to be wandering off the plantation at night, going out and having fun, visiting friends and neighbors on neighboring plantations. The owners wanted them back in the slave cabins getting rest so they’d be ready to go the next day. And the owners would rather not do the work of a slave patrol themselves, so they hire some less well-off white people to do it for them. Slave patrolling is one of the origins of policing in the old south.

TCR: How do the slave trade and the history of enslavement connect to the often combative and prosecutorial relationship between police and African Americans today?

JF: Under slavery, black people did not enjoy freedom of movement. Masters and overseers kept them at work, under at the very least the threat of the whip, and barring the occasional errand off the plantation, slave-hire situation, or cross-plantation marriage, enslaved people did not have much opportunity to leave a highly circumscribed area. Slave patrols kept watch over the roads at night to make sure the enslaved were not wandering off to places where owners did not want them. This reality established certain expected patterns in white minds concerning what behavior was appropriate for black people and what geographic spaces were available to them.

In our own time, too, how often do we hear in the media of black people—black men in particular—who are arrested simply for being somewhere that white people didn’t want them, or somewhere they made white people uncomfortable, even in public parks or stores or by walking down the street? Racial profiling by police officers falls into the same category. With all of the technology available to us today, it’s pretty plain how often routine traffic stops escalate quickly and tragically. This is not terribly different from southern slave patrols harassing the enslaved in the nighttime hours. Several scholars have pointed out the roots of modern-day police forces in the South during the era of slavery. We are talking about racialized forms of social control, under different guises. And what links them is capitalism. Slave owners wanted their human property toiling away for them, producing for the market. And today, too, black and brown people are disproportionately convicted for crimes, imprisoned, and put to work for the profit of others.

TCR: In dealing with the topic of black incarceration and slavery, your narrative references the fact that large numbers of African Americans were sold and transported throughout the south constantly. The constant description of the slave trade in the context of numbers leads to a certain amount of desensitization, resulting in the reader at times forgetting that you’re talking about people rather than an expendable product. 

JF: The term that historians of slavery use is commodification: enslaved people are transformed into commodities, into things that are bought and sold. I think the real parallel between the domestic slave trade and the present day is that you are looking at captive black people, who are denied their freedom, to make money for white people.

TCR: What role does the history of slavery in general play in gaining a better understanding of today’s criminal justice system?

JF: My book points out the long-standing criminalization of certain black behavior. The 27 enslaved people who were the members of “Williams’ gang” are subject to the punishment that they get on the basis of a lot of flimsy, circumstantial evidence and wrongful convictions. Every one of these 27 had been originally condemned to death (for theft), before the governor gave them a reprieve. That was how Virginia law worked at the time. Today [we see] black people getting harsher sentences than white people for the same kinds of crimes. The theme is quite consistent: systemic inequality has been built into the criminal justice system since the colonial period, and was certainly present in the time period of the 1830s-1850s that my book covers.

The 13th amendment still allowed for slavery as a punishment for a crime. That’s how they get away with some of the things they are doing today. But, again, just because it’s in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean that it’s fair, or right, or just. It is just [part of] a long tradition of black oppression at the hands of the American criminal justice system


Out of prison after 41 years, MOVE member Delbert Africa rails against ‘unjust’ criminal justice system

Out of                     prison after 41 years, MOVE member Delbert Africa                     rails against ‘unjust’ criminal justice system

LAUREN SCHNEIDERMAN / Staff Photographer

Delbert Africa, a longtime member of MOVE, is unrepentant about his part in the 1978 Powelton Village confrontation between the group and Philadelphia police that left an officer dead and sent him to prison for more than 40 years.

“Nothing could have been done differently to stop and curtail that assault by the police on us. It wouldn’t have stopped,” Africa, 73, said Tuesday in his first Philadelphia interview since being paroled from state prison on Saturday.

One of nine MOVE members imprisoned for the 1978 incident, Africa said he is looking forward to reuniting with the surviving MOVE members who were previously paroled, to continue the work of challenging what he called an unjust criminal justice system. The fact that the city has had African American police commissioners during his time in prison has no bearing on the inequity in the system, he said.

Move                         member Delbert Africa, who was paroled from                         state prison after nearly 42 years, held a news                         conference with other members of the MOVE family                         at the Kingsessing Library in West                         Philadelphia.
LAUREN SCHNEIDERMAN / Staff Photographer

Move member Delbert Africa, who was paroled from state prison after nearly 42 years, held a news conference with other members of the MOVE family at the Kingsessing Library in West Philadelphia.

“I want to keep on pushing the whole front of fighting this unjust system. I want to keep on pushing it and do as much as I can in my time here as dictated by the teachings of John Africa. Keep on working, stay on the move,” said Africa, who discussed his past and future goals at a news conference Tuesday at the Kingsessing Branch Library in West Philadelphia.

At the gathering, Africa, his face framed by gray frayed dreadlocks and facial hair, received a hero’s welcome from MOVE members and supporters who listened in rapt attention as he recalled the August confrontation with police, and recounted how he was cursed at and badly beaten by officers after he surrendered.

“I’m unconscious, and that’s when one cop pulled me by the hair across the street, one cop started jumping on my head, one started kicking me in the ribs and beating me,” he said. “Their excuse later on is they thought I was armed. I was naked from the waist up.”

MOVE has always maintained that the bullet that killed Ramp was accidentally fired by police.

By 1980, the group had relocated to the 6200 block of Osage Avenue. Neighbors began to complain to the city about trash, loudspeaker rants, and concerns about child abuse and neglect in MOVE’s house.

Delbert                       Africa (center) glares at deputies as he and                       Chuckie Africa leave court at City Hall during                       their 1979 trial for the murder of Officer James                       Ramp. Nine MOVE members were convicted.

Delbert Africa (center) glares at deputies as he and Chuckie Africa leave court at City Hall during their 1979 trial for the murder of Officer James Ramp. Nine MOVE members were convicted.

On May 13, 1985, the city flew a helicopter over the group’s home and dropped the bomb that left 11 people dead, including John Africa, as well as Delbert Africa’s 13-year-old daughter. The neighborhood was in ruins, with 61JDebbie homes destroyed. City officials were found to have acted recklessly, but no charges were filed.

Delbert Africa was among nine MOVE members convicted of third-degree murder for Ramp’s death.

Janine, Janet, and Eddie Africa were released from prison in 2019. Mike Africa Sr. and his wife, Debbie, were released in 2018. Merle Africa died in prison in March 1998 and Phil Africa died in prison in January 2015. Chuck Africa remains


‘Pantherism is for everyone!’

“Panther Power” – Art: Peter Kamau Mukuria (Comrade Pitt), 1197165, Red Onion Prison, P.O. Box 1900, Pound VA 24279

Interview with NABPP Chairman Shaka Zulu by Heather Warburton of New Jersey Revolution Radio

Heather Warburton: This is Wine Women and Revolution with your host Heather Warburton coming at you here on New Jersey Revolution Radio. You can find us online at Get us wherever you get your podcasts from and follow us on all the social media.

Today I am really excited about this interview. I have someone with me that the group he’s with is probably doing some of the best organizing I’m seeing in the state of New Jersey right now. And I do not say that lightly. They really are doing really impressive work up in the Newark area. Welcome to the show, Chairman Shaka Zulu of the New African Black Panther Party.

Chairman Zulu: All power to the people! Glad to be here and I’m glad to talk to your audience.

Heather Warburton: I’m so happy that New Jersey Revolution Radio was able to support you guys and help get your message out. And that’s one of the things I’m probably most proud of that we’re doing here on NJRR. Because like I said, you guys are doing amazing organizing. I’m just not seeing the kind of organizing you’re doing – that grassroots neighborhood empowerment organizing – by many other groups in the state.

So I wanted to take a little trip back to your origin story. How did you come to be a revolutionary? How did you get this thought, revolutionary thought, in you? And you’re going to start empowering communities? Where did that come from?

Chairman Zulu: Well, I think that how I became a revolutionary was my encounter with the criminal justice system. I think that the police encounters, the prison cell, that kind of kicked me into the revolutionary movement. When I initially went to prison, I was a common criminal. You know, I sold drugs. I robbed. I’d steal. I did all the things that people that are cut off from the economy do to survive.

But when I went to prison, that’s when I encountered a hardcore revolutionary idea – that with study with time and practice one can change their behavior, one could change their ethics and morals, their values, and join with the rest of humanity trying to make a better place for everybody. So I began to read books. I began to talk to political prisoners. I began to do a lot of writing. And in that process, I discovered the importance of ideas – what it meant, how can we apply it?

“All Power to the People” – Art: Peter Kamau Mukuria (Comrade Pitt), 1197165, Red Onion Prison, P.O. Box 1900, Pound VA 2427

And in essence, how can I relate to those ideas in a meaningful way? So I encountered books that I still read to this day, “Soledad Brother” by Comrade George Jackson, Huey P. Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide” or “To Die for the People,” Bobby Seale’s “Seize The Time.” Obviously, I read Assata Shakur, I read Angela Davis’ “If They Come in the Morning.” So I read a lot of revolutionary books that dealt with the Black condition here in the United States.

But as I began to delve deeper into ideas, revolutionary ideas, I began to become familiar with Mao Tse-tung, Lenin and Marx, Che Guevara and their lifestyle, their ideas; the ideas match their action. So I said in order to be a true, genuine revolutionary, I had to marry theory with practice. And so I became a revolutionary within the enemy prison system.

Heather Warburton: And so obviously, you’re reading a lot of early, you know, the Black Panther movement stuff? And is that really … had you had any familiarity with the original Black Panther Party before you were in prison? Or did you really come to finding their ideology while you were in prison?

Chairman Zulu: Oh no. I think that the average Black person, whether they are part of the Black lumpen class or the Black working class or the Black petty bourgeois class, knows of the history of the Black Panther Party in a superficial way. Because our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers had some kind of encounter with the Black Panther Party, whether they saw it growing up, or they experienced it by participating in the many programs that the Black Panther Party had.

So I always knew that the Black Panther Party existed. I didn’t know its ideology. I didn’t know its membership. I didn’t know its international reach. And I certainly didn’t know its theoretical practices. But I knew of the Black Panther Party name.

It’s similar to old folk tales that we have within the Black community. Especially during slavery, there will be periods where the African slaves would get together, and they would talk about Old Jack, or they would talk about Old Kennedy. These are Black slaves that rose up in rebellion. They escaped the plantation, and they raided the slavemaster’s house for the corn for the chicken. But they were never caught.

And so 10 years, 15 years, 20 years down the line, this tale is still being told to African slaves, about the behavior of Old Jack or Old Kennedy, who was able to outmaneuver the slavemaster, in fact, the slave state, but he was never discovered. And in some instances, it’s a fairy tale. Because with African culture, you want to inspire. You want to motivate. You want to put people in a position where they believe they can win.

So the Black Panther Party has that sort of mysticism, that sort of mystique within the Black community. Some of us don’t understand its ideology and think that all it is is a hate whitey party. You know, others, perhaps thought it was, or still think that it’s about kill police or guns, you know.

But it was only when I begin to read that I begin to understand that the most important aspect to the Black Panther Party was the social programs. Was this ability to empower people who were hopeless, who had no sense of what it means to be agents of change, and not depend on the enemy state, not depend on charity, not depend on handouts, but become proactive, transforming your conditions where you at right now.

You may not have all the resources, but you have something to start with, and that idea of the Black Panther Party, that you can empower yourself, empower the community, empower the nation, empower the world through a revolutionary thrust for freedom inspired me. And that’s where I became enamored with social programs as a prerequisite to the liberation of all oppressed people.

Heather Warburton: Well, I think that leads really well into my next question: We obviously know the problems with capitalism; we know the problems of imperialism; we know the problems of racism in this country right now. So what does a good functional society look like to you? We know what we’re struggling against, but what are we struggling for? What do you want to see reflected in society?

Chairman Zulu: Yeah, I think that one of the most beautiful things about being a communist is that we have over 150 years of solid practice to look back on to determine what kind of society we want. Obviously, the first socialist society in 1917 did not get the chance to fully develop as a socialist society, because it was constantly under attack. It was surrounded by imperialist enemies.

“Panther Love” – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, 264847, Pendleton Correctional Facility, G-20-2C, 4490 W. Reformatory Road, Pendleton, IN 46064

And from 1917, really to 1953, we saw a microcosm of a world that we want today. We saw woman liberated from the household, and Russia’s situation, liberated from the peasant life, the peasantry, the backwardness of that kind of life, so they could become leaders of the society. We saw free healthcare. For the first time in history, we saw housing become a human right. The means of production, the resources under the earth, and on the earth, was put into the hands of the state, and the state used it to lift up the living conditions of its people.

So I think when we look at capitalism, and try to compare it to the kind of world that we envision today, the most important aspect that everybody can agree with is that all of the resources under the earth belong to all up the people on top of the earth. That these resources will give us a world that is free from militarism, racism, a world that is free of negative isms.

Because if you look at resources, resources are primarily responsible for the way that the world is constructed. Today, there’s uneven economic development, because there is a part of the world that hordes and monopolizes the resources and the Earth. So that gave birth to racism. That gave birth to wars. That gave birth to a sort of seeking refuge in a religious understanding.

So if the resources were in the hands of the people, we won’t have a Congo that has been at war essentially all of its life since Leopold invaded during a scramble for Africa. But I’m talking about since 1996, when Laurent Kabila assumed power in the Congo and was assassinated. Since the next year, there has been a low intensity war taking place in the Congo over the resources – the gold, the diamonds, the tantalum – that go into cell phones, airports, jets etc.

So if we can grab hold of the resources that are in the hands of the 1,670 billionaires, if we can grab hold of those resources, we can change the world that we live in, and we can start giving people housing as a human right. We could give them education as a human right. We can abolish prisons. We can abolish warfare as a means of resolving contradictions between nation states and individuals.

So I think that the kind of world we want is a socialist world; it is the only viable alternative to capitalism. There have been others who try a third way, you know, monarchies, and others who sort of mix capitalism and socialism. None of that stuff works.

“Panther Love” – Art: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, 264847, Pendleton Correctional Facility, G-20-2C, 4490 W. Reformatory Road, Pendleton, IN 46064

We know that socialism gives us the ability to put humanity on the right course and on the right foot. Capitalism, from the get go, put humanity on the wrong course. So I think [we can] envision a world that is free of pollution, free of sexism, patriarchy, a world that is free of militarism, a world that gives humanity the opportunity to live in peace and harmony and to enjoy the fruits of the earth in an equal way. So that’s the kind of world we want: We want a socialist world.

Heather Warburton: And I was really hoping that’s what you’d touch on. Because everything you said just makes sense. People don’t always understand what communism or socialism means. And they build things up in their head. But really everything that you said I think everyone can relate to.

I think everyone can see the contradictions of their current life, and how some other way of forming society just makes sense. That we’re actually living collectively as opposed to constantly in conflict with each other. And conflict comes out of capitalism or any class society really.

Chairman Zulu: Exactly, man, if you look at the earth, it’s been around a long time, almost a billion years. States, the modern construction of a state where you have people existing on top of one another, the working class, the ruling class – that is a new invention. And it came into existence as a result of dividing up the resources of the world.

Prior to that, for thousands of years, people lived in a kind of world where intercommunally everything was shared amongst the people. So if we wanted grapes, it wasn’t a grape store down the street that monopolizes the grapes. You know, if we wanted apples, we didn’t have to go to Chiquita and ask them, can we buy a pound of apples. You simply went and plucked some apples off the tree.

You got enough to make sure that the whole village got some apples when they wanted some. So this is the kind of world that we can only create. This is the kind of world that we can only create, through a revolutionary struggle of the working class, against those who seek to continue to hoard, control, dominate, monopolize the resources of this earth that belong to everybody.

Heather Warburton: And I think to that end is where you’re doing really amazing organizing work. And I’m hoping you can tell us a little bit about some of the work that you started doing. You’re building an actual base of revolutionary power in the city of Newark. So can you tell everybody a little bit about what you started doing there?

Chairman Zulu: Oh, that’s beautiful. I think. This base, this base area, this idea that there’s liberated territory, that revolutionaries here in the United States can go to and strategize, come up with tactics, come up with ways of clarifying theories, and values and ethics and more rules came out of my study.

It came out of the fact that the Black Panther Party created base areas in the country where all people who were struggling for justice could come and meet and talk. Sometimes, in these areas, discussions got heated, you know; they were intense, but they were meant to clarify the conditions that oppressed people were struggling with.

So what we want to do is rebuild that infrastructure of revolutionary thought, a revolutionary structure – revolutionary into communalism. We want to rebuild that because it gives us the opportunity to extend that revolution outwardly from a base area. I think that a lot of revolutionaries and progressives have moved away from the construction of a base area, because of the way that helter skelter politics is organized nowadays.

There is a need to respond to so many conditions of brutality and exploitation. And as a result, the painstaking work of doing what Antonio Gramsci called “building the organic leader in the community” working with the grassroots who have suffered.

Being a Black Panther meant working hard every day with and for the party. – Photo: Pirkle Jones

So we’re trying to re-institute that infrastructure. And we have been moving in that direction for the last few months. Our first campaign was to stop a prison that they was trying to build. Here in the City of Newark, they wanted to build a prison smack in the heart of the oppressed community. They wanted to tear down houses in that particular community in order to build the prison.

So we put together what we call a No Prison Friday Rally. And for nearly two months, we were on South Orange Avenue here in the city of Newark protesting and rallying every Friday. And we got the governor, the enemy governor, to state that there will be no prison built on South Orange here in the city of Newark. That was the work of the New African Black Panther Party and the United Panther Movement.

Others have come along, the Johnny-come-latelys, and claimed responsibility; that’s okay. But the community in which we stage these rebellions knows who put the groundwork down. Know who was there every week, to stand in solidarity with them. So that was one of our initial programs. And we still continue that program under a different set of work conditions.

We no longer focus strictly on the prison, per se. But now we incorporate mass incarceration, criminal justice, you know, there’s 2.5 million people in the enemy prison today. There’s 6.5 million people on some form of criminal justice supervision. There’s 500,000 people waiting right now in county jails across the country. So we exist, we live in a mass incarcerated state. And any revolutionary organization that truly wants to liberate the ground has to take on this ugly behemoth of mass incarceration.

So Fridays, we call it “No mass incarceration; we want liberation!” That’s our new project.

Our other project is Empower the Block. That is something that we put together two weeks ago – and a Saturday survival program. We go out into the community, not to bring charity, not as an act of pity.

But we do it as a way of empowering the people in the community. Letting them know that you don’t have to wait on the garbage truck to come. You don’t have to wait on the mayor to come. You don’t have to wait on the state to come.

You could simply get on your block, pick up a broom, and empower each other by cleaning the neighborhood. And then talk about why did you need to clean the neighborhood, because the resources that other communities have are not available in these poverty stricken communities that are left out of the national economy.

So it’s the means of revolutionizing the minds of the people. Let them know that we could start with something small and build that project into a mighty revolutionary force. And so that’s what Empower the Block does. It gives the people the opportunity to come out of their house to meet one another again, and to begin to talk to each other about why our blocks (are the way they are).

Why would communities of nations have to suffer the way they are suffering? It’s because of capitalism, white supremacy. It’s because of an idea that, in order for capitalism to maximize the rate of dollar, it must exploit the labor power of the masses of the people. We have to teach that.

They have to understand that economics is primarily responsible for their condition. It is not individual white men. It is an economic system that has privileged white society over Black society. So we get rid of capitalism; then we could sit down all of us – Black, white, Latino, Asian and the indigenous people – and talk about the kind of world we could build. But it starts with grassroots organizing.

Heather Warburton: What you were saying reminded me a lot of Thomas Sankara when he says, people who just give us food, you’re not helping our community really. [The ones] giving us fertilizer, giving us plows, so we can empower ourselves is who’s really helping us.

And you know this confusion of like, charity is great – you’re filling a temporary need – but you’re not really teaching people how to empower themselves and do it themselves. And that’s really where revolution comes from, is enabling people to know that they really hold the power. And you know, that’s your slogan, right? All power to the people.

Chairman Zulu: And that’s beautiful, that’s beautiful, because that’s the difference between a capitalist society; they individualize heroic acts. As a socialist society, we make heroic collective work.

So if there is a village or an urban setting that is suffering from a lack of resources and the state is unwilling or unable to provide those resources, then we have to come up with a methodology to pool what little we have to make sure that our brothers or sisters can eat or have access to health care or stop police brutality or get a decent education.

All Power to the People!

So Thomas Sankura was right. You know, giving us a bowl of rice, it’s not the same weight as teaching us how to plant rice in order to feed the whole community. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to hand out a bag of food and simply say, that’s the work of revolution.

We’re trying to build confidence in the idea that you could start a community garden, and plant your own vegetables, plant your own food, and utilize that as a way of empowering your community. So charity is an act of capitalism. Empowering people, allowing people to become agents of change, is an act of socialism.

Heather Warburton: I think you just said that beautifully. Really, I think that was perfectly stated. And I hope that’s going to resonate with some people.

One other thing that I did want to touch on with you is historically, when we think about revolutionaries, it kind of is more from a masculine viewpoint. You know, we think about some of the great revolutionaries throughout history, it’s always men. And I know you’re specifically working on empowering women as well in your community to make them revolutionary leaders. It’s not just a men’s only club for the New African Black Panther Party.

Chairman Zulu: You know what, Comrade? That is very important to us. We have we have a multiplicity of rules and regulations that prohibit discrimination or sexism or patriarchy against not just revolutionary women, but women in general. We find it a stamp of disapproval that we should subject the other half of humanity to psychological chains or to physical chains – to a tradition that denied them their full stature as human beings.

So we make it a case to put qualified, qualified sister comrades in leadership positions. And we have in place currently, within our various two organizations, sisters, revolutionary sisters, who are leading, who are making decisions, who are highly qualified to move this revolutionary struggle forward.

And all of the men within our organization respect, adhere to and push forward with this idea that half of humanity cannot be in chains, while the men sit, eat apples, drink water and talk about freedom. We can’t do that. So it would be reinforcing a kind of bourgeois tradition to say that only men can pick up rocks. Or only men can write a dissertation. Or only men can speak eloquently to move the masses.

I know that history shows us definitely and we have those examples that we teach to one another on a day to day basis. So some of our comrades lead these particular study groups; female, woman comrades lead study groups. You know, they lead the protest rallies that we organize.

So it’s a wonderful opportunity to show the rest of the country – and by extension the world – what mighty power lies dormant in a woman when they’re given an opportunity to lead revolutionary movements and to express revolutionary ideas, because all of the ideas, all of the projects that we have been doing have come from our female comrades.

I’m the face of the revolution. But behind me is a cadre of women revolutionaries who prod me every day, who tell me every day, be mindful of how you speak. Be mindful of what you do, because you have to represent everybody, not just men.

And we’ve just elected to the branch committee of the New African Black Panther Party a deputy minister of finance, who is a female. She is from Delaware, and she and hopefully the world will get the opportunity to see her pretty soon, but she is a wonderful revolutionary leader.

So we’re making sure that anyone who’s qualified within our organization and within our ally organizations are that if you don’t push women forward who are qualified, we don’t want to have anything to do with you. Because we’re not going to a set a new form of slavery within a socialist framework. It’s not going to work.

We’re either for the total freedom of humanity, or we’re for the continuation of the division of humanity that we have today. We are for total freedom – the New African Black Panther Party is for the complete and total liberation of all humanity. And that includes our significant, mighty force of woman revolutionaries.

Heather Warburton: And I think that’s great that you’re putting that into practice and not having ally organizations that are upholding misogyny and upholding male supremacy. If you’re going to be an organization that affiliates with you, you’ve got to put this stuff into practice. You can’t just talk about it; you’ve got to do it. So I thank you for that.

You had said something to me at – I think it was at – the Green Party convention. It was a quote about women, something about holding up half the sky. What was that called?

Chairman Zulu: Ah, Mao Tse-tung! Let me tell you Mao Tse-tung said that first. And it’s a famous quote that women hold up half the sky, now bound up with that as a whole lot of ideas of values and ethics.

But Malcolm X said it in a way where he made it more plain. He said that you can tell the political development of a people by the political development of its women. So what he meant was, an equal and virtuous society will prioritize the most disenfranchised and victimized people within that society [and help them rise] to a level where they are on an equal footing with others. And for us, since we’re talking about women, they have been the most brutalized in this society, because they have always been under the foot of a patriarchal, dominating kind of structure.

Heather Warburton: Yeah, I thought that was a great quote. So I wanted to make sure that you said that again. So what if people want to help? How can they get involved and help you? How could if somebody wanted to start organizing a revolutionary base somewhere like Philadelphia or other cities? What can they do? How can they get involved?

Chairman Zulu: Well, the easiest thing is you can visit the New Afrikan Black Panther Party Facebook page. And we have an email address: You can email And we will talk to you about what are the requirements, how you go about opening up a collective or a branch within Pennsylvania or any other state.

There is a prerequisite to that: You have to go through an orientation process. So we will explain all of that to anyone. All you have to do is send me an email at

Heather Warburton: And you accept donations as well?

Chairman Zulu: That’s right. In fact, we can’t do anything without donations. The word … they say that revolution ain’t free. Freedom isn’t free. So we collect the nickels and dimes of the masses of the people.

If anybody wants to donate, they could CashApp $Szulu. Again, they could CashApp $SZulu. And we will certainly appreciate whatever contribution you could make to us building this base area of social, cultural and political revolution here in the city of Newark.

Heather Warburton: All right, you guys, like I said, you really are doing some of the best organizing I’m seeing. So it’s just a different spirit you’re organizing with, and I think it’s starting to show that people are starting to really pay attention. You didn’t brag about it yet yourself. And I asked you to brag a little bit about some of your work you’re doing. You had 500 people show up to an event?

Chairman Zulu: Yeah, that was wonderful. Mao Tse-tung got a saying that a small spark can start a prairie fire. That sometimes revolutionaries and progressives around the world, especially in the West, which is Britain, France, United States, they get discouraged. They get discouraged when lot of people don’t show up. They get discouraged when their ideas don’t readily take off. They get discouraged when they don’t see immediate gratification.

And as a result, their work suffers. They may have a great idea. But because we have this immediate gratification mentality, we end up not staying with the idea, not sticking to the idea. When we started the prison rallies, it was only 15 of us, mostly from our organization. But each week, it increased. It gradually increased. It brought more people in.

So we can’t simply take credit for all of those people coming out. We know that the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice also participated in that rally, and their voice was able to help persuade a lot more people to come.

So we was just happy that folks stood up; they raised their voice of condemnation of the prison by putting their bodies on the line. And this is the kind of work that we want to do, we will continue to do.

I think that we’re building a beachhead, a true genuine beachhead in New Jersey, and there are gonna be folks coming from all around this country watching what we do. And I mean this in the collective sense, watching what we do. And we hope that this small, small spark, here in the state of New Jersey and the city of Newark becomes a prairie fire around the country.

Heather Warburton: And Brian and I have always joked here of calling New Jersey the great nation of New Jersey, and the thought was that we would start the communist nation of New Jersey or the People’s Republic of New Jersey. But you guys are actually doing that. You guys are starting your own area that can spread and I think it will.

I really genuinely believe in the work you’re doing and that it’s going to spread. And you’re going to build an actual revolutionary base here in New Jersey and spread out from here.

Do you have any closing words today before we wrap it up?

Chairman Zulu: No, I just want to say all power to the people and encourage our brother and sister organizations out there, the masses of the people, that change can only come through small incremental steps. That we shouldn’t automatically be enamored with the glitz and glamour of struggle, but get our hands dirty, get on our knees, and turn some screws, and knock some nails to some wood. That’s how you build an infrastructure of revolution.

And I’m excited. I’m happy. And we’re just getting started. Hopefully, like I said, we build this thing into a dual and contending power with the enemy system. And it leads to a true genuine revolutionary overturning of capitalism and imperialism.

Heather Warburton: And I ask a lot of people if they’re an optimist, and I genuinely believe you are because you see, in practice and in theory and practice, change happening. Time is short, and we need this change to happen. And I don’t see a lot of other movements that could bring about this change that we all need.

[Without it] we will die ultimately; capitalism is killing us. It will wipe out humanity. And we need revolution now. And you’re one of the only organizations I see that’s even remotely making that happen. So, so much for the work you’re doing.

Chairman Zulu: Thank you. I appreciate this interview, and any time you need us, the New Afrikan Black Panther Party will be there. We will be on the scene. And we appreciate the work that you’re doing at this radio station as well.

Heather Warburton: And same thing: Whenever you need publicity or you want to talk about anything, our air waves are your airwaves. You know that that anything you want to talk about, we’re here for.

Chairman Zulu: All power to the people!

Heather Warburton: All power to power to the people! To my listeners, thank you so much for joining us today. This interview should be inspiring to you. This interview is probably the breath of fresh air a lot of you need right now. Because things are grim. And it’s easy to get bogged down in how grim things are. And that’s why we’re here. We want to inspire you. We want to help elevate the voices of the people that are doing the actual hard work of changing society.

We appreciate you so much here as our listeners and our family at NJRR and we do unfortunately have to ask for your help occasionally. We take no corporate money; we can’t be your voice if we’re being paid off by the corporations. So we only can rely on donations from the activist community.

If you can go on to our website,, click on that Donate button, even if it’s only $2 a month. That really helps us budget and know what we’re going to have coming in so we can get more people out to cover events, so we can get more places.

You know, Brian and I are the only two of us. We need to be able to hire more people to get out and cover these events. So anything you can do, we really appreciate it. The future is yours to create; go out there and create it.

New Afrikan Black Panther Party Chairman Shaka Zulu can be reached at




The case against solitary confinement

by Stephanie Wykstra

Albert Woodfox was held in solitary confinement for more than 40 years in a Louisiana prison before being released in 2016, when he was 69 years old. In his book Solitary, published last month, Woodfox writes that every morning, “I woke up with the same thought: will this be the day? Will this be the day I lose my sanity and discipline? Will I start screaming and never stop?”

Thousands of people — at least 61,000 on any given day and likely many thousands more than that — are in solitary confinement across the country, spending 23 hours per day in cells not much bigger than elevators. They are disproportionately young men, and disproportionately Hispanic and African American. The majority spend a few months in it, but at least a couple of thousand people have been in solitary confinement for six years or more. Some, like Woodfox, have been held for decades.

Solitary confinement causes extreme suffering, particularly over prolonged periods of months or years. Effects include anxiety, panic, rage, paranoia, hallucinations, and, in some cases, suicide.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, deemedthat prolonged solitary confinement is a form of torture, and the UN’s Mandela Rules dictate that it should never be used with youth and those with mental or physical disability or illness, or for anyone for more than 15 days. Méndez, who inspected prisons in many countries, wrote, “[I]t is safe to say that the United States uses solitary confinement more extensively than any other country, for longer periods, and with fewer guarantees.”

Many practices in the US criminal justice system are harsh, ineffective, even absurd, from the widespread use of money bail to detain unconvicted people to extremely long sentences and parole terms, and a host of other outrages. But placing people in solitary stands out as a violation of human rights.

Well over a century ago in the US, the practice fell out of favor, partly because of its capacity for psychological harm. Yet starting in the 1980s, its use in prisons and jails exploded again.

Over the past decade, there has been a movement to (again) stop the widespread use of solitary. There have been major steps forward in some states. But there’s considerable need for more progress — and wider acknowledgment that this is something that we are all accountable for. As Laura Rovner, a law professor at the University of Denver, put it in a recent talk, “We torture people here in America, tens of thousands of them every day … it’s done in our names, with our tax dollars, behind closed doors.”

A brief history of solitary confinement

In the 1700s, religious groups, including the Quakers, thought that isolating people in their cells with a Bible would lead to repentance and rehabilitation. The Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia expanded to include solitary cells in 1790, and other prisons and jails adopted the approach over the subsequent years.

A few decades later, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania opened in 1829, the first prison built entirely to keep people in solitary confinement. When Charles Dickens visited the facility about a decade later and met with people who were held in isolation, he wrote, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

In 1890, the Supreme Court heard a case in which a person had been held in isolation for a month while awaiting execution. The Court stated that this was “an additional punishment of the most important and painful character, and is therefore forbidden by this provision of the constitution of the United States,” adding that experience with solitary confinement over the previous decades had shown the devastating results on people.

By the early 1900s, the practice had largely been abandoned, in part because it was seen as unethical and ineffective, and in part because it was much costlier.

But that was not to be the last word on solitary confinement. Nearly a century later, in the 1980s and ’90s, the US prison system again took up the practice in full force.

This shift is commonly traced to October 22, 1983, at a federal prison in Marion, Illinois, when four guards were injured and two were killed by people housed in the prison. Administrators at the facility responded with a long-term “lockdown,” in which everyone at Marion was held in their cells for 23 hours per day. The model used at Marion soon spread to other facilities across the country.

The federal and state prison systems began to construct “supermax” prisons, in which a unit of the facility (or the entire facility) is designed to hold hundreds of people in solitary confinement. Pelican Bay State Prison in California was the first newly constructed supermax prison to open, in 1989. Within 15 years, federal and state supermax prisons had opened in 44 states.

Why solitary came back

Why did correctional institutions take up solitary confinement when it had been deemed ineffective and unacceptably cruel 100 years prior?

Researchers often point to a couple of main causes. First, there was a rise in “tough on crime” policies in the ’80s and ’90s. These policies led to many more people —disproportionately people of color — being locked up for long periods of time. Given subsequent overcrowding, corrections administrations were eager to find ways that, they argued, would increase safety and security for staff and incarcerated people.

In the same period, there was a shift in how incarceration was viewed by corrections staff and policymakers. The opinion that “nothing works” to rehabilitate people became popular, and prison was seen much more as a way to lock away dangerous people. (In an unfortunate turn of events, a researcher whose 1974 systematic review helped popularize the view that “nothing works” later found problems with his analysis and recanted, but his retraction was largely ignored.)

Poor data collection and secrecy surrounding solitary confinement over the years also may have played a role in allowing the practice to proliferate. That said, we do have some data. A Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis of the 2011-’12 National Inmate Survey (in both prisons and jails) estimated that about 18 to 20 percent of incarcerated people spent some time in solitary confinement in the course of a year. A National Institute of Justice report, using the number of people incarcerated in 2013, calculated that about half a million people spent some time in solitary confinement at some point in the year, or 90,000 on a given day.

The most recent nationwide estimate of 61,000 people in solitary on a given day in 2017 comes from a survey of state prisons and a few large urban jails, conducted by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School. As Solitary Watch, a nonprofit that aims to raise awareness about the practice, and the researchers who conducted the survey point out, this estimate is likely to be considerably lower than the total number, given that it omits anyone held in solitary for less than 15 days, as well as those held in other facilities such as local jails, juvenile detention, and immigration detention centers.

Beyond lack of data transparency, many facilities — especially supermax prisons — are also largely closed off to observers. Some prisons forbid anyone who doesn’t personally know a person housed there to visit. That restriction even included Méndez, the former UN special rapporteur on torture, who told Solitary Watch that he requested permission to visit prisons in the US for years without success.

What is it like in solitary confinement?

Researcher Sharon Shalev describes typical solitary confinement conditions in her 2009 book Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement:

  • Cells are about 7 or 8 feet by 10 feet in size (slightly bigger than the average bathroom or elevator)
  • People are held in their cells for 22.5 to 24 hours per day; when let out, it is into a small, solitary outdoor cage with no recreational equipment
  • No group activities or congregating with others
  • Very few activities or programs
  • Limited visitors, and then only through a thick glass barrier with no physical contact

Many firsthand accounts from people who have experienced solitary attest to these conditions.

Justice Rountree, who spent five years in solitary and is now an advocate with the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, said in arecent panel that compared to regular prison, solitary “feels like losing your freedom.”

Rountree and many others describe being kept awake by constant shouting and banging from others in cells. In many cells, there is no window, and sometimes even from the outdoor cage where they are allowed to go (by themselves) for an hour to pace back and forth, they can’t see the sky. Shaka Senghor, who spent seven and a half years in solitary, described the smell as “defecation, unwashed armpits … [mingled] with the pepper spray officers use to extract prisoners from their cells.” Some have even described how they begin to hallucinate.

Far from isolating only people who have been violent, it’s very common for corrections to put people in solitary for trivial reasons. A 2015 report from the Vera Institute of Justice describes how “disruptive behavior — such as talking back, being out of place, failure to obey an order, failing to report to work or school, or refusing to change housing units or cells — frequently lands incarcerated people in disciplinary segregation.”

Facilities vary as to what extent they allow people books and other materials while in solitary. Even if reading materials are allowed, they are often censored. In the absence of social connection, many people describe feeling unable to connect normally afterward. Sarah Shourd, who was held in solitary for more than a year in Iran, wrote, “… I couldn’t look into another person’s eyes without physical discomfort. … A touch on the shoulder made me flinch and tense up.”

For some people, particularly teenagers and those with mental illness, this disconnection can be lasting. Kalief Browder was 16 when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack in New York City. His family couldn’t afford the bail, and he spent three years at a Rikers Island jail waiting for court hearings, two of them in solitary — where he tried to kill himself a number of times. After his charged were dropped and he went home, he isolated himself, often staying in his bedroom and pacing as he had done in solitary confinement.

At the age of 22, he died by suicide.

What does research show about the harms of solitary confinement?

Research over the past few decades has documented the effects of solitary confinement. In congressional testimony in 2012, psychologist Craig Haney summarized: “Most of the research has reached remarkably similar conclusions about the adverse psychological consequences of solitary confinement.”

Haney gives the example of his 2003 study of 100 randomly selected people held at Pelican Bay, the supermax prison in California. Haney found that virtually all of his interviewees reported heightened anxiety, irrational anger and irritability, confused thought processes, and being extremely sensitive to external stimuli. Some 70 percent felt themselves to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, about 40 percent experienced hallucinations, and just under a third reported suicidal thoughts.

According to Haney, these symptoms closely matched other studies of people held in solitary confinement for a period of months to years, and were much more severe than in general populations of prisons and jails. Haney and other psychologists including Stuart Grassian have long argued that these symptoms develop and increase while people are confined in solitary, rather than merely being preexisting symptoms.

The desperation that people feel in solitary confinement can lead to psychological breakdown, self-harm, and suicide. A 2014 study of New York City jails found that while only about 7 percent of people spent time in solitary confinement, they accounted for nearly half of all acts of potentially fatal self-harm. Studies have shown that a quarter of suicides (or even more) behind bars occur in solitary confinement.

The risks of extreme harm to people in solitary are greater for vulnerable groups, such as those with mental illness and disabilities. In 2012, the American Psychiatric Association released a statement saying that with rare exceptions, people with serious mental illness should not be placed in solitary.

Yet prisons and jails very often do just that. In a Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis of data in 2011-’12, nearly 30 percent of those held in solitary in prisons reported severe psychological distress, with a further 20 to 23 percent reporting mood and anxiety disorders.

There’s also widespread agreement among researchers that the risks to young people in solitary confinement are particularly severe. Depriving young people of sensory and social contact has a heightened risk of serious and lasting effects. The federal system and many states are restricting the duration of solitary confinement or banning solitary confinement for youth, but in recent years, the practice has still been common in prisons and juvenile detention facilities in some states.

Not all researchers hold the same view about the harms of solitary confinement. Some are more skeptical about past research showing serious harms, and they question how much we can infer from studies that often lack a comparable control group. In recent years, some researchers have also pointed to a 2011 study in Colorado that purported to show evidence that those in solitary for months to a year fared no worse psychologically than similar people in the general population of the prison.

They also point to two systematic reviews that combine the results of only studies that directly compare those in solitary confinement to those in a control group. Both reviews claim that after pooling those studies, solitary has only a modest negative impact on mental health. In response, Haney and others have pointed to a number of serious methodological problems with the systematic reviews and with the Colorado study.

Does solitary confinement do what it purports to do?

Let’s sidestep this debate and ask a different question: What’s the evidence that solitary confinement achieves positive results?

Corrections departments have long argued that solitary is effective at maintaining safety and security in prisons. But the evidence does not support this view.

A 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice stated, “There is little evidence that administrative segregation has had effects on overall levels of violence within individual institutions or across correctional systems.”

The few studies on the impacts of increased solitary confinement do not show a reduction in violence among people held in the facilities. For example, a 2006 study of three states that opened supermax prisons showed no subsequent statewide reduction in violence among those housed at the prisons.

Furthermore, there’s little evidence that solitary meaningfully improves safety for staff in prisons and jails. To be sure, correctional officers have an extremely difficult job, and it’s important that they are able to go to work without being in danger. Many who work in corrections believe that solitary confinement plays a role in keeping them safe. As Gary Mohr, director of Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, wrote, “[O]ur staff, those who work in the trenches of our prisons, firmly believe the use of restrictive housing as a default disciplinary sanction is tied directly to their safety.”

However, as in the case with violence in prisons generally, there is no strong evidence that solitary is keeping officers safer. The 2016 National Institute of Justice report found that few studies have focused on the effect of solitary confinement on subsequent misconduct (including violence against staff). A large study in Ohio found no evidence of any effect of solitary on subsequent violent misbehavior. In states like Colorado and North Dakota, which have dramatically reduced the number of people in solitary confinement over the past several years, corrections directors report that there has not been an increasein violent incidents against corrections staff. And while the 2006 study of three states that opened supermax prisons did show a reduction in violent incidents against staff in one of the three states (Illinois), it found no effect in Minnesota and an increase in such incidents in Arizona.

There is a legitimate question of how to protect vulnerable people, such as people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, and others, in prisons. Protecting such populations has often been given as a reason for using solitary.

But there are other options. The Vera Institute, which has worked with corrections departments across a number of states on reducing solitary, reportson effective ways to keep people safe other than solitary confinement. Vera, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association, recommends keeping people in a safe, separate area of the facility with others, and with full access to programming and services. As far as putting youth in solitary confinement within adult facilities to keep them safe, advocates argue that they shouldn’t be in adult prisons to begin with.

Finally, advocates often point out that the vast majority of people housed in solitary will be returning to the community, where they are expected to function. Solitary makes that transition even more difficult.

Abandoning solitary confinement. Again.

Over the past decade, there’s been a surge of attention and reform on solitary confinement. Advocacy groups have been pushing for change, including the National Religious Campaign Against TortureCalifornia Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, and the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.

The Vera Institute has worked with a number of jurisdictions on reforming their practices. Among the group’s recommendations are that solitary confinement should:

  • Never be used on vulnerable groups such as those under 18, pregnant women, and those with mental illness or mental/physical disabilities
  • Rarely be used as discipline, and then only for violent offenses
  • Used with the least restrictive conditions possible, providing access to medical and mental health care outside of the cell, visitors and phone calls, and daily hours of programming with other people
  • Never be used directly prior to releasing someone back into the community.

In 2016, President Obama reformed the use of solitary confinement in federal facilities, including banning it for those under 18 and limits on its use for adults. But since the federal system holds about a tenth of the people incarcerated in the US, these reforms only affect a small number of the total held in solitary confinement.

Some reforms have been driven by actions from within prisons and litigation. For example, thousands of people held in Pelican Bay and other prisons in California participated in a series of hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, protesting their treatment, including the application of indefinite solitary confinement.

In 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a federal class-action lawsuit(Ashker v. Governor of California), resulting in a 2015 settlement that required California’s corrections department to release many of those who had been in long-term solitary and to reform their rules.

Other lawsuits in recent years have succeeded in banning and restricting solitary, largely focused on vulnerable groups such as youth, people with mental health issues, and pregnant women. However, as in California, it’s been clear that corrections sometimes try to find ways around new rules.

There’s also been a wave of legislation at the state level. So far, state bills have largely secured protections for people in vulnerable groups, or have mandated (at the very least) that prisons report data on their use of solitary confinement. However, two states — New York and New Jersey — are considering bills that offer sweeping reforms for everyone who is incarcerated.

Finally, internal change is also taking place within some corrections departments. In 2016, the American Correctional Association — a nonprofit that provides guidelines to corrections departments and facilities across the US — issued new standards on restrictive housing (its term for solitary confinement). These included banning its use for more than 30 days for pregnant women, people with serious mental illness, and young people under 18. Many jurisdictions reported that they were changing their policies as a result of the new guidelines.

A few corrections departments went much further to improve their policies. In 2017, Colorado put into place some of the most progressive policies in the country, limiting solitary confinement to the UN standard of no more than 15 days. North Dakota is another state that has significantly reformed its use of solitary confinement.

When thinking through the movement against solitary confinement, we should see it within the broader context of our criminal justice system. Hugely important changes — such as reforms to bailparole/probation, and sentencing — will likely go a long way to reducing people in solitary confinement, since there will be fewer people in prisons and jails to begin with. Amy Fettig, the deputy director for the ACLU’s National Prison Project and Director of the ACLU’s Stop Solitary campaign, told me, “We have to get people out of prison, and we have to get people out of solitary confinement. [Both are] part of a systematic effort … we’re confronting a system that is so profoundly broken in so many ways that you can’t fix one problem without fixing the others.”

The Supreme Court has stated that what counts as “cruel and unusual punishment” in the Eighth Amendment must “draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”

Have our “standards of decency” evolved enough for us to stop this practice?