Confronting Human Rights Abuses in US Prisons
--an interview with Bret Grote of HRC/Fed Up!
By Angola 3 News
Bret Grote is an investigator and organizer with Human Rights Coalition/Fed Up!, a prisoner rights/prison abolitionist organization based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Grote first became involved with the group after returning from the mobilization in Jena, Louisiana in Fall 2007. HRC sister chapters are in Philadelphia and Chester, PA. While covering a range of topics in this interview, Grote details how HRC/Fed Up! is documenting human rights abuses in Pennsylvania prisons, and using this documentation to fight back.
The website for the founding chapter of Human Rights Coalition (HRC) in Philadelphia says that HRC "was founded in 2001 based on the radical notion that there was a vital segment of the population missing from the organizing work against prisons: the families and loved ones of the over two million prisoners in this country. Not just as spokespeople or tokens, but in decision-making positions, deciding what campaigns to do and what issues to address. Incarcerated brothers took this idea, and asked their family members as well as some supporters to take the lead in building such an organization, and the HRC was born"There are many fronts to fight the prison system on, so many issues to address, but the voices of those most affected: prisoners' families, ex-prisoners and the prisoners themselves, have to be at the forefront of any movement to change and, sometime in the future, to abolish the prison system entirely, because we are the ones who know the intimate pain this system causes."
Angola 3 News: Can you please explain the history of the Human Rights Coalition/Fed Up chapter?
Bret Grote: Our chapter of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) was formed in late 2004-early 2005 and was originally known as Fed Up! The group began as a collaboration between etta, an anti-prison activist who lives in Pittsburgh, and Kevin Johnson, a prisoner confined in Red Onion State Prison, a Supermax facility situated in southwestern Virginia adjacent to the Tennessee border. The two were collaborating on an arts-based educational project.
Given the inherent brutality in Supermax facilities, the diametrically opposed racial demographics between prison personnel and prisoners, and the prevailing culture of violent dehumanization within the U.S. prison system at every level, it is no surprise that reports of severe human rights violations began emerging from Red Onion and its twin institution Wallens Ridge State Prison, which sits 30 miles down the road atop a decapitated mountain, immediately after each opened in 1998 and 1999 respectively.
Fed Up! was formed in an effort to expose conditions of confinement in Virginia's high-security prisons and mobilize prisoners' family members and support people against the racism, brutality, deprivation, medical neglect and abuse, and psychological torture that define these facilities.
Over the next couple of years Fed Up! built a contact list of hundreds of prisoners in Red Onion and Wallens Ridge, documented dozens of reports of human rights violations, informed various governmental representatives and agencies-including the governor of Virginia--of these conditions, and mobilized allies for letter and phone campaigns in an effort to penetrate the silence that enables the worst of the abuse, and thereby having a chilling effect on the most grievous brutality.
Sometime prior to or during 2007, Fed Up! became an official chapter of the Human Rights Coalition, a prisoner rights/prison abolitionist organization whose founding chapter was and still remains active in Philadelphia. HRC was the brainchild of prisoners as well. Around the fall of 2007 and early 2008 HRC/Fed Up!--as we were then known--began to focus more exclusively on PA prisons for reasons of capacity and strategy, because, obviously, we have more potential and actual power in this state since we are based here.
During these last two years we have documented hundreds upon hundreds of human rights violations (to view a small portion visit our website) from over 20 prisons in the state system (PA has 27 state prisons). These reports have been collated from thousands upon thousands of pages of prisoner letters and reports, criminal complaints, affidavits and declarations, civil litigation documents, prison records, along with countless hours of interviews and dialogue with current and former prisoners and their family and support people.
What our investigations demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt is that the state of Pennsylvania is operating a sophisticated program of torture under an utterly baseless pretext of "security", wherein close to 3,000 people are held in conditions of solitary/control unit confinement each day.
Every single prison in the state has a control unit, and most of these consist of barren and often filthy cells that not only are the size of a bathroom, but are in fact bathrooms. Prisoners are confined for 23-24 hours per day in their cells. Reading materials are heavily restricted and censored. All incoming mail is subject to being read, except legal mail, although this policy is often violated while outgoing mail is subject to various forms of surveillance, tampering, and destruction. Restrictions on visitations are extreme and all visits with those in control units are conducted through thick glass with prisoners who are handcuffed throughout. Exercise "privileges" are granted 5-days per week when prisoners are taken to little cubicles of space enclosed by chain-link fencing and resembling dog kennels, presuming that the guards are willing to follow policy that day and that the prisoner in question feels secure being led from their cell to the "yard" by often flagrantly racist and sadistic guards.
While this capsule description of solitary confinement may appear inhumane and degrading enough to constitute torture--and it is--the concise litany of conditions above more or less corresponds to the aspects of solitary confinement that are mandated by policy, with the exception of some forms of mail tampering. The fact of the matter is that these control units are never operated in accordance with policy and instead serve as quite deliberate repositories for excessive and arbitrary violence, starvation and deprivation of water, psychological torment, etc.