Alan Berkman


(Kurshan): I first met Alan about 20 years ago. At that time he seemed to be every place a white person of principal should have been. Alan was and is a physician. He chose to practice medicine in places like the South Bronx, and in Lowndes County, Alabama where doctors were as scarce as in the poorest of the third world countries.

As revolutionary movements developed in 60s and 70s, Alan used his political experience and his medical skills in support of the Black Liberation Movement and the Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the American Indian Movement. Alan was at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, during the historic occupation and confrontation between the US government and the American Indian Movement. In 1982 Alan was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating the Black Liberation Movement . He was later indicted for providing medical care to a wounded revolutionary after a shootout with the police. Rather than allow himself to be incarcerated, Alan chose to elude the authorities and continue his political activities. In 1985 he was arrested in Philadelphia and charged with numerous indictments, including a series of political bombings of government and military targets. Alan was held in preventive detention for two years until his trial in 1987. This despite the fact that he was diagnosed with cancer. After conviction, Alan was sent to Marion Federal Penitentiary - the worst prison in the United States- where he spent two years.

I visited Alan when he was in jail awaiting trial in Washington, D.C. He was on a very well-guarded, locked ward of a hospital. The prison ward. Suffering from Hodgkins Disease, Alan was extremely frail physically and I left feeling deeply frightened about his survival. But at the same time I was overwhelmed by Alan's spiritual strength. Alert, curious, politically engaged. Well, Alan did survive his imprisonment. And more. Prison was unable to break his will to struggle for justice. He has been out several years now and remains an outspoken critic of the U.S. prison system. He was one of the earliest voices on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. This is the first opportunity we here in Chicago have had to hear from him, and we are extremely honored that he is here with us tonight. Please welcome Alan Berkman. (Long, standing ovation.)

Thank you so much. Actually, I want to thank all of you who helped me to live and be here tonight. Some of my oldest friends in life are here as well as newer friends, people who wrote to me, people who I never had the chance to meet, to write to or to personally thank. Organizations like the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), the Movimiento de Liberacion Nacional (MLN) and church groups gave me enormous support.

The campaign to get me decent medical care in the context of being a high security political prisoner, is a good example of the impact our efforts can have. So when we do campaigns, even when it seems that the odds are against us, I hope that my standing here tonight shows that we can sometimes beat the odds. Certainly you helped me to beat the odds. I thank you for that.

I want to read a solidarity message that was sent by eight women political prisoners who are all incarcerated together in Pleasanton, California. And it goes,

"To the event commemorating the Marion Lockdown: We join you in marking the anniversary of the Marion Lockdown honoring those who have suffered the long months and years of isolation, who have resisted and struggled to bring an end to the cruelty of control units. Many of us women political prisoners and Prisoners of War have spent time in the federal control units. We can attest to the fact that control units equal torture. So we join you in recognizing the extreme urgency of the campaign to shut down all control units. Our sense of urgency about this only grows as we experience the general worsening of prison conditions and the damage to mind and body caused by these increasingly repressive and inhuman conditions. Finally, we send our love and support to all those locked down in control units today and especially to our brothers, the political prisoners and Prisoners of War in Florence, Pelican Bay, Westville and Marion. And to many more, such as the women isolated in the special housing unit in Marianna. Hasta la Victoria Siempre! Close the Control Units! - Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War, FCI Dublin, California, October 1995. The individuals are Marilyn Buck, Linda Evans, Ida McCray, Dylcia Pagan, Lucy Rodriquez, Carmen Valentin, Laura Whitehorn and Donna Willmott."

I got out of prison three years ago. For any of you who have done time, enough time so that the prison becomes your life, you know that one of the things that happens when you get out is that you start saying, "I'm doing this for the first time." So when I got out of prison in Minnesota, I hugged my daughter in the flesh for the first time in many years. I remember when I got to make love to somebody that I was in love with for the first time in many years. I opened a letter that hasn't already been opened and read by somebody else for the first time in many years, or let myself out of my own door for the first time in many years. Coming to Chicago for the first time in many years is not as much fun as having sex for the first time in many years, but it's been a wonderful visit and I'm very glad to be here. It's wonderful to see you all again.

It was wonderful to spend some time at the control unit meeting that Nozomi is going to speak about later. It was a very impressive gathering. Having been in a control unit and been fortunate enough to get out, I can honestly say that the work you are doing is incredibly important and greatly appreciated.

I want to say that I agree when the flyer for this event states that there are social roots to the phenomena of mass imprisonment; I actually think that there are social roots to the proliferation of control unit prisons. I will get to that, but first I want to give a first hand account of the conditions in Marion. Nancy introduced the issue of Marion. I think at this point, unfortunately, that what I experienced there is far from the worst of what is currently going on. Having read about Pelican Bay and Westville, I am convinced that there are quantitatively worse conditions going on. But let me talk about the ones I know about.

Over the years I have read the CEML stuff, and it always says that the prison cells in Marion are 7' by 10' - I swear it was 7' by 8'. I don't know where the other 2' came from. Anyway, it was very small, and at that point we spent 22 hours and 45 minutes a day - I guess they have loosened it up to 22 hours and 30 minutes per day now - in this concrete box, with a concrete slab with a plastic pallet to sleep on and with two cardboard boxes for our possessions. We weren't allowed to have any clothes or anything from the outside, we just had the khakis.

One of the "nice" things about Marion though, is that since they just locked you up like an animal, it was the only place in the federal prison system where, if you didn't get dressed, they didn't care if you hung around naked all day. Except on Friday mornings when the warden would come around with his little entourage. Because, you see, in the federal prison system the warden has to show that he is not afraid of the prisoners. The warden always has to make him or herself accessible to the prisoners at least once a week. Usually they will stand on the line in chow halls in many prisons. But in Marion there is no chow hall to speak of because we don't get to go out of our cells. So, he would walk the tier, and the only day that you had to put your clothes on at Marion was on Friday mornings when the warden came by.

When we got out of the cell we didn't get to go outside. Most of the cells in Marion don't have windows, so you don't see the outside. When we got out of our cells, we only got out to walk up and down the tiers on the half of the range we were on. Going outside and seeing the sun, getting some fresh air, happened for a grand total of two hours a week, usually at 7:00 in the morning. If it was winter, we didn't go out at all for several months in a row.

We got two ten minute phone calls a month, needless to say, monitored. One of the nice things at Marion was that nothing was subtle. You actually watched the local guard on your unit listening on the phone as well as knowing that they were taping it someplace else. So when we talk about the phone calls being monitored, there was no issue about it. Truthfully, I really had questions about whether the pain of the abrupt phone calls, if you are lucky enough to have family and children, was worth the ten minutes. At one point my daughter Sarah said to me, "Daddy the phone calls aren't working" because we always had to hang up before we could say anything. There were no contact visits, that goes without saying. Although we had no contact with anybody, a couple of times a week we would be stripped in our cells and taken to an empty cell while our cells would be tossed and searched. It had nothing to do with security. This is my thesis for the evening: maxi, maxi prisons have no more to do with security than imprisonment has to do with controlling crime. They have a different function.

At Marion, every time that we had to leave our cell, we had to back up to the slot in the bars and get handcuffed behind our back. We would get steered by three or four guards who carried riot batons. It was the only place in the federal system that the guards were armed with these metal-balled riot batons. Sometimes, I could never figure out why, even when they were just moving us inside the prison, they would put waist chains and a box on too. Sometimes they didn't; I guess it was what mood they were in that day. What's the box? The box is a metal brace that actually locks your handcuffs so that you can't move them at all and locks it up against your waist chain. It's called the black box.

Those are the physical conditions. I think they are not as important as the psychological conditions that are established at Marion and other control unit prisons. Part of that is just the sheer isolation. There is the isolation of being in a cell by yourself. But Marion itself and most control unit prisons are in very isolated spots. Marion is down at the very end of this state, 400 miles from here. To get there, most people fly to Springfield, Missouri and drive. Many prisoners had ruptured their relationships with their families and never got visits. It was incredibly expensive and a very hard place to reach. I was one of the very few people who had a support network of family and friends, so that I did get visits at Marion. I got a Christmas visit in 1987. There were three of us out of a prison of over 400 men who had a visit over the Christmas holidays.

I want to describe a visit, because I think its important. Going to visits at Marion taught me an important lesson. I just told you what our daily life was like. When we had a visit, we were taken through these hallways alone; they never moved more than one prisoner at a time in Marion. It's a very surreal, Kafkaesque situation, walking through these long gleaming corridors. The gates move electronically. Cameras watch you. This guard steers you by handcuffs behind your back, and you see no other prisoners. You just have the sense that this whole prison is here for you. It's you inside this mammoth, high security prison. They take you to a small strip room. And even though you have just come from your cell where you haven't been anywhere for months, they strip search you. And after they strip search you, they re-handcuff you and escort you to a little concrete box that has plexiglass, and you have a non-contact visit over the phone. And then they take you and then they strip search you again. Then they take you back to your unit.

The strip searches are degrading and infuriating. They would make me want to hurt somebody because they made no sense. There is no security rationale. Slowly it dawned on me that that's the whole point: they make no sense. Because the key thing to understand about control unit prisons is that they are arbitrary and irrational. The people in charge show to you, the prisoner, that they can do anything they want, whenever they want, for any reason or for no reason at all. I began to think on that and I realized that I thought, there's a big difference between power and authority. Marion and all the other control unit prisons are concrete and steel embodiments of the dynamics of power.

You see, "authority" implies that there are rules and regulations of some sort that govern both those who are in authority and those who are being governed by those in authority. There is a sense that there are rights remaining to those who are in the subservient position. When you have constitutional authority, its theoretically the people who give the authority. Nobody would say that prisoners give the authority. But power recognizes no rights but its own. There are no rights remaining to you as a prisoner or to anyone subjected to power. I would say that that is the same dynamic that we see in colonial situations, for instance.

Probably many people know that during the German occupation, when the resistance would kill a German soldier, ten or fifty or one hundred people would be killed in exchange. It had no proportionality. It didn't matter, because the whole essence of power is that the oppressed are not human and therefore have no human rights. That's really what the control unit prisons are designed to do. They are designed to impose on the individual the sense that he or she is no longer a human being. They want to strip the prisoner of any sense of self. That's what they consider to be a victory at Marion Penitentiary.

Power is arbitrary, Nancy spoke about the arbitrary way people are sent to Marion. You know they say everybody is the "worst of the worst." You know that that's a lie. In the federal system, it's anybody that the FBI and the Attorney General says goes to Marion. I was a medium security prisoner; I had been convicted for the first time; I had no convictions for prison violence or a prison escape attempt. It made no difference. I was a political prisoner, and like many, many, many other political prisoners, I was somebody that they were going to isolate, somebody that they were going to attempt to break. Someone, who, if they could strip me of my sense of dignity and self they would be stripping me of my political identity. The FBI thought that it would be a victory over the movement that I came from. It's the same strategy they used against the political prisoners from Puerto Rico or the Black Liberation Movement or Native American or Mexican liberation movements. By breaking a political prisoner or POW, the FBI hopes to not only destroy the individual, but also to strike a blow against the movements that people represent.

Now obviously, I think that this phenomenon of dehumanization is not unique to control unit prisons. I don't think it's unique even to prisons. I think it happens in all prisons; it's part of what it's about. It happens in society. We know that if you are not white, male, monied and straight in this society, you are dehumanized. You have to fight to maintain your sense of self. But there is something particular about the control unit prisons. When I was in prison a number of years ago, I wrote an article. In the article I analogized Marion to what I thought Mississippi must have been like during the slave system. Its the ultimate place where people who fight the hardest against being stripped of their dignity, get sent. People in power always need one place where they can try to destroy people who rebel against the "merely intolerable" conditions in the rest of the prison system. And that's what I think Marion and the rest of these control unit prisons are.

Now I would quickly like to come back to the issue of the social roots. Remember, Marion opened in 1963, but the control unit was a product of the Nixon Administration. The control unit opened in 1972. The control unit was developed by psychologists for revolutionaries in the prison system. This Dr. Shein, the psychologist who helped develop Marion, talked about using Korean War brainwashing techniques to change revolutionaries in the prison system. It's gotten used on a much broader basis since then.

What was going on during that period of time? Richard Nixon ran in 1968 on a very important platform. There was the Vietnam War internationally, but what was his major domestic platform for those of you old enough to remember? It was law and order. I think that the Nixon campaign, using what he called his "Southern Strategy," was the first time that the issue of crime became THE issue for the US domestic political agenda. What did it really mean? It meant that in the face of urban rebellion by Black communities all over this country, crime was the way that politicians were going to have a discourse with white people about what to do with the insurgent Third World communities inside the United States. Everybody knew it. It was only a little less grotesque than David Duke. Since then, it's gone through several generations. "Law and Order" became the "War on Crime" during the 1970's and became the "War on Drugs" during the Reagan Administration.

Being "tough on crime" has become the way that politicians to this day discuss race relations with the white electorate. A key part of Bill Clinton's electoral campaign was to leave New Hampshire in the middle of the Democratic primary and execute a mentally retarded Black man in Arkansas. He made sure that everyone got the message in this country about what his fundamental feelings were. George Bush, as you might remember, used Willie Horton to get elected.

I think that "Law and Order - Crime" has become an ideological cover for a social policy of mass imprisonment in this country. I think if a million Black, Latino and some poor white youth were just pulled off the street and put into concentration camps, there would be some rebellion and unrest about that. But both the fear of crime and the reality of crime in our degenerating society are manipulated in such a way that it's had an impact on every community. It's consolidated and gets its power from the white community, no question about it. But I think if we look at it honestly, every community, including communities of color, have been impacted by this incredible drum beat about fear and what to do about it. The result is that on any one day, there are now more than a million people in long term prisons, and during the course of 1994, three to four million people passed through jails in the United States.

One of the things that I've learned from prisons is that when you are stripped of your sense of humanity or somebody attacks your sense of humanity, the reaction is rage. I think before I went to prison, I understood rage a little bit; I wasn't totally naive. I think that my fundamental view was that rage is some unfortunate part of our animal nature. In prison I learned that rage is one of our most human emotions. I think rage is what human beings feel when other people treat us like we're not human beings. It's intimate, it's personal, it's human, it shows that we are fighting back. I think that rage explains many of the social phenomena we see these days. Rage is often not well directed: you can hurt yourself, you can hurt your family, you can hurt your community, you can do bad things unless you have the leadership to direct your rage in the right direction. But don't ever think that it's not human.

I think we have a country where the social policies, the increasing poverty, the increasing racism that we have experienced, create rage. It strips more and more people in this country, particularly in communities of color, of the very sense of dignity, self esteem, self determination, the very essence that makes people human. People rage in response to that: we have social rage. And what's this government's answer to social rage? The answer is "let's imprison it."

Then what happens when you imprison rage? You have this ever spiralling loop of poverty, racism, rage, repression, imprisonment, more rage, more repression. It's a really destructive feedback loop. When those in power try to imprison rage, then they need someplace where they can extinguish the rage by destroying the very humanity that the rage breeds on. That's what control unit prisons are for. The people whose rage is most deeply rooted and the people whose rage is most political and directed against the real enemy are those who end up in the control unit prisons. There, there is a concerted effort to strip those people of their humanity, because once they are no longer human, they will no longer rage. And that's what I think many political prisoners have experienced and successfully resisted.

I do think that's why so many political prisoners and POWs are in control unit prisons. Part of it is the sheer phenomenon of isolation. They want to isolate political people from the movements that they are part of. But part of it, as I said before, is I also think that some of the political people are the most effective organizers that I have ever met in my life, and they don't stop being good organizers when they go into prison. They organize African American history groups, they organize Puerto Rican history groups, they organize AIDS groups and every one of those groups is based on a sense of self-empowerment of the people inside prisons. They take the same lessons about nation-building and movement-building that they developed as political people on the outside and develop it in prison. Those are people that the prison system doesn't want to help people inside figure out how to channel that rage. I think that's why we find so many of our political brothers and sisters spending so much time in control unit prisons.

I want to come back to thanking you, because I am firmly convinced that the chain of common humanity that unites us across a lot of divisions is always going to get broken at the weakest link. And the elite in this country, knowing from generations and centuries how to utilize racism and white supremacy, has focussed on the issue of crime and imprisonment as the weak link. People in prisons are demonized and called subhuman. William Bennett, who was the Secretary of Education under Reagan if you will remember, called prisoners "animals who should be beheaded." Those of us who continue to reach out our hands to people in prison and do the work around prisons are trying to keep those links of common humanity alive. I think that's incredibly important work to do, and I thank you for that. The William Bennetts of the world will not prevail. (Standing ovation.)