In 1986, I received a letter from Ojore Lutalo who had just been placed in the Management Control Unit at Trenton State Prison in New Jersey. He asked what a control unit was, why he was in there and how long he would have to stay. We knew little of control units then, except what we learned from the many prisoners who reached out to the AFSC to mentor those of us trying to give voice to what was - and is still - happening.
Today the continued use of these instruments of torture coupled with the persistent misunderstanding and mislabeling of prisoners as Muslim extremist threatens the security of Americans both inside and outside prison walls, and eats away the moral and spiritual compass that purports to drive American justice.
After Ojore's letter, we began hearing from people throughout the country saying that they were prisoners being held in extended isolation for political reasons. We heard from jailhouse lawyers, and prisoner activists, many of whom were Muslim who found themselves targeted and locked down in 24/7 solitary confinement. The AFSC began contacting people inside and outside the prisons to collect testimonies of what was going on in those isolation units which by definition are forms of torture. We had no idea how many people were experiencing this, the conditions in those units and how many control units there were.
One woman wrote "the guard sprayed me with pepper spray because I wouldn't take my clothes off in front of five male guards. They carried me to my isolation cell, laid me down on a steel bed and took my clothes off, leaving me with that pepper spray burning my face."
Some of the saddest letters are from prisoners writing on behalf of their mentally ill peers like the man who spread feces over his body. The guards' response to this was to put him in a bath so hot it boiled 30 percent of the skin off him.
"How do you describe desperation to someone who is not desperate?" began a letter to me from Ojore Lutalo. He described everyone in the Trenton Control Unit being awakened at 1 a.m. every other morning by guards dressed in riot gear and holding barking dogs. Then the prisoners were forced to strip, gather their belongings while the dogs strained at their leashes and snapped at their private parts. He described being terrorized, intimidated, and the humiliation of being naked and not knowing whether the masked guards were male or female.
If we think back to slavery and to images of the modern Civil Rights Movement, we understand that dogs have been used as a device of torture in the U.S. for hundreds of years.
These testimonies and more are from men, women and children being held in isolation and experiencing the use of devices of torture in human cages where there are few witnesses.
I have received thousands of descriptions and drawings of four- and five-point restraints, restraint hoods, restraint belts, restraint beds, stun grenades, stun guns, stun belts, spit hoods, chain gangs, black boxes, tethers, waist and leg chains.