The Nation

April 23, 1990


B-Block Days and Nightmares


For whence did Dante take the materials of his hell but from our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell of it.
      --Schopenhauer, "Homo Homini Lupus"

A shove, a slur, a flurry of punches, and an inmate is cuffed and hustled to the R.H.U. (Restricted Housing Unit), where a beating commences. Wrapped in the sweet, false escape of dreams, I hear the unmistakable sounds of meat being beaten by blackjack, of bootfalls, yells, curses; and it merges into the mind's movie-making machine, evoking distant memories of some of the Philadelphia Police Department's greatest hits--on me.

"Get off that man, you fat, greasy, racist, redneck pig bitch muthafucka!"

My tired eyes snap open; the cracks, thuds, "oofs!" come in all too clear. Damn. No dream.

Anger simmers at this abrupt intrusion into one of life's last pleasures on B-Block--"home" of the state's largest death row--the all-too-brief respite of dreams.

Another dawn, another beating on B-Block, another shackled inmate at Pennsylvania's Huntingdon prison pummeled into the concrete by a squadron of guards.

This was late October 1989, the opening for furious days and nights when prisoners throughout the state slipped briefly free and erupted in rage. The scene had been replayed a thousand gruesome times, and the conflict it prompted, crushed ultimately by club and boot, by fire hose and taser electric stun gun, began with the modest demand that Huntingdon's administrators put an end to beatings of handcuffed prisoners in B-Block. Since then the repressive practice has not abated, and the bitter aura over America, as politicians cry for "toughness," descends over already darkened dungeons like a pall.

As walls fall in riotous clamor in the Eastern bloc, and as demonstrators rejoice over an end to state police brutality, walls climb ever higher in the West, and club-wielding fists find frequent function in subduing the common urge to human dignity, whether by imprisoned or "free."

Prisons in America jeer at the rhetoric of liberty espoused by those who now applaud Eastern Europe's glasnost, for capital's elite guardian, the U.S. Supreme Court, has welded prison doors shut, blacked out and shuttered windows, closing off any "opening," any notion of the rights of free press, religion or civil rights. (See Shabazz v. O'Lone and Thornburgh v. Abbott for examples.) Indeed, in the late 1980s the term "prisoners' rights" became oxymoronic.

The riots that rocked Pennsylvania were flickering reminders of this reality: acts not of aggression but of desperation, of men pushed beyond fear, beyond reason, by the clang!--not only of prison gates but of the slamming of doors to the courthouse, gates of legal recourse chained.

At Huntingdon's A-Block, fistfights between guard and prisoner evolved into a full-scale riot.

"Walk, you fuckin' nigger! I'm not gonna carry your black ass!"

"You black nigger motherfucker!" yelled a rural voice, the fight exploding onto B-Block in a dark, red wall of sound. Grunts, thuds, groans and curses assailed the ear as a bloody promenade of cuffed prisoners, many of them the A-Block rebels, were dragged, flogged and flayed, down the dirty gray corridors of B-Block's death row en route to outdoor cages, man-sized dog pens of chain-link fences.

"Officer," a visiting guard barked to a Huntingdon regular, "stop dragging that man!"

"Captain," the local guard answered, her voice pitched higher by rage, "this fuckin' nigger don't wanna walk!"

The prisoners were herded into the cages--most bloody, some in underwear, many wet, all exposed to the night air for hours.

Days later Camp Hill in Central Pennsylvania erupted, with prisoners taking hostages, assaulting some and putting much of the forty-eight-year-old facility to the torch. For two nights the state's most overcrowded prison stole the public's attention. It took a battery of guards and state troopers to wrest back some semblance of control.

"Say 'I'm a nigger!' Say it!" the baton-wielders taunted black prisoners, beating those who refused, according to MOVE political prisoner and eyewitness Chuck Africa, who, although not a participant in the rebellion, was nonetheless beaten by guards, transferred into the federal prison system and lodged at Lompoc Prison, California.

Days after the fires of Camp Hill cooled, while convicts stood shackled together in the soot-covered yard, Philadelphia's Holmesburg burst into its worst riot in almost twenty years. At its peak prisoners yelled, "Camp Hill! Camp Hill!"

Now, as costs for "Camp Hell's" reconstruction soar (latest estimate, $21 million), and bills are introduced to cover county costs for riot prosecutions (to the tune of $1.25 million), one must question the predictably conventional wisdom attributing the days and nights of rage to simple overcrowding. To be sure, the system's "jam and cram" policy was a factor, but only one among many.

In 1987 the Governor's Interdepartmental Task Force on Corrections, composed of eight Cabinet-level secretaries, issued a comprehensive report calling for changes in the state's prison: reform of the misconduct system, institution of earned (known as "good") time, liberalization of visiting procedures, release of death row prisoners from the R.H.U. and introduction of substantial education programs. The report, despite its pedigree, died a pauper's death, its biggest promises unfulfilled.

The naming of David Owens Jr. as prison commissioner in 1987, the first black in the top post, may have heightened expectations, especially among blacks, who make up 56 percent of the prison population, but it also deepened frustration as prisoners saw no change in rule by predominantly rural whites over predominantly urban Afros and Latinos. Was it mere coincidence that rebellion burned hottest at Camp Hill, within sight of the commissioner's office?

Owens's tenure proved as short-lived as it was historic. Politicians protested when he proposed nominal compensation for prisoners who lost their property in the state's shakedown after the riots. Mindful of looming gubernatorial elections and of politicians angling to make Owens and the prisons an issue, Pennsylvania's first-term conservative Governor, Robert Casey, accepted Owens's resignation. With the state's captive population breaking 21,000, prisons overcrowded by 50 percent and more than 700 convicts in the federal system, it's not surprising that there are now no takers for Owens's politically sensitive job.

Perhaps there is a certain symmetry in the circumstance of a prison system in crisis in the very state where the world's first true penitentiary arose, under Quaker influence. Two hundred years after initiation of this grim experiment, it is clear that it has failed.

One state representative, criticized by her colleagues for making "irresponsible" statements, boldly told United Press International the simple hidden truth: Unless serious change is forthcoming, she predicted, we "are going to continue to have riots."

Repression is not change; it's the same old stuff.

Mumia Abu-Jamal is on death row in the State Correctional Institute at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. His writing appears in the Philadelphia Tribune and other papers.

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