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“Prisoner work camps run in military style under study by N.S.,” The Globe and Mail. October 13, 1983. Page 10.

SYDNEY, N.S. – SYDNEY, N.S. (CP) – Most people convicted in Nova Scotia courts lack discipline, pride and motivation and those who aren’t dangerous would benefit from work camps run in army fashion, Attorney-General Harry How said yesterday.

Mr. How said his department will consider the idea of work camps for convicts when it takes over the operation of correctional centres from municipalities next year.

The minister told delegates to the annual conference of the Atlantic Provinces Criminology and Corrections Association that jailing “the disadvantaged person who turned to crime” brings him in touch with dangerous criminals who are likely to be the worst influence.

But probation is not the answer either, Mr. How said, because “they would be going back to the same underdisciplined and unmotivating environment that got them into trouble in the first place.” In 1979, he recommended developing a special corps of the Canadian Forces for non-dangerous criminals, but the Defence Department did not like the idea. “Some said it would reflect badly on the armed services,” the minister recalled.

Mr. How said he still believes the idea is a good one and if it cannot be implemented at the national level he will pursue it in Nova Scotia. “We have to motivate people and we have to give them the vision without which they would perish. ’‘These people aren’t bad. These people need somebody, some mechanism, or some program to give them a new sense of worth and a new sense of motivation.” Mr. How said the program could be run by a former army officer who would give criminals the disclipline and physical work they need to develop strong bodies. High school and trades teachers would be available to “excite their minds.” The program could develop projects in forestry, park development and the cutting of fuel wood for senior citizens, but would not intrude on the regular job market, Mr. How said.

Dennis Finlay, a spokesman for the Correctional Services Canada, said he knew of no one in the federal department developing a similar program of work camps.

But Mr. Finlay noted that the federal service already has forestry camps in Nova Scotia for inmates and is looking at eventually setting up an isolated penal community, which he said may be modelled on an island penal community in Mexico.

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“Guards Use Tear Gas: Reformatory Riot Follows Open House,” The Globe and Mail. September 25, 1962. Pages 01 & 12.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Guelph, Sept. 24 – The first open house in history at the Ontario Reformatory here last weekend affected about 30 inmates today – they rioted.

Superintendent Charles Sanderson said some disturbance usually follows any unusual program, such as the open house that attracted more than 10,000 persons to the institution.

The prisoners were subdued within 15 minutes after guards pumped large quantities of tear gas into the dining room. There was considerable damage, but no injuries were reported.

Mr. Sanderson said the prisoners did not attempt to leave the dining room, but smashed crockery and windows. They were removed to a prison yard after the outbreak and more than 350 inmates eating in an adjoining room were also removed for safety.

There had been a couple of incidents in the dormitories during the weekend that led him to expect trouble, the superintendent said, ‘but I didn’t expect anything as serious as this.’

About 30 inmates overturned and broke about 25 windows Saturday night and there were a couple of fights between prisoners, Mr. Sanderson said. One guard received a broken nose attempting to break up one fight.

‘Their fun involves vandalism,’ the superintendent added.

About 15 men involved in the dormitory disturbances were today transferred to the maximum security at Millbrook.

The men in the large dining room were brought back into the building just before 5 p.m. They had been confined in a prison yard since noon.

About 250 men who were in the small dining room remained in another room.

Mr. Sanderson said the 250 inmates of the reformatory will spend the night in the prison yard and will not be given any food until morning.

‘It is unfortunate that we have to leave all the men out because we are not yet sure who all the troublemakers are,’ he said.

The staff at the reformatory was doubled in strength tonight with about 80 men on duty. Guards are watching from rooftops and other locations with tear-gas guns ready.

Mr. Sanderson said that it was the prompt use of the tear gas that prevented the trouble from becoming more serious.

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“Inside Kingston Penitentiary – Ten Years After Canada’s Most Infamous Prison Riot,” Saturday Night. September 1981. Pages 32 & 33.


Part one. Part three.
—-
‘THE Cells Are Opened at 7 In the Morning,’ Says An Inmate Sentenced To life. ‘Breakfast is at 7.30. You go the kitchen by ranges, then back to your cell with your tray. You’re locked in with your food until 8 while the medication trolley comes around. From 8 to 11 you work. Back to your cell at 11, lunch and maybe a sleep until 1, then back to work until 3:30. Supper, until 6. After supper, you can be out on the range, playing cards or watching TV. Or you can go to the exercise yard in summer, the gym in winter. Lockup is 11 o’clock. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year.’

Routine, repetition, numbing boredom. The inmate’s lot is grim; but less so than it once was. One of the major reforms of the past decade is a programme of family visits. At present these are restricted to maximum-security institutions (whose inmates are ineligible for the termporary absences available to medium- and minimum-security inmates), although they may soon be extended to medium-security prisons. The programme was introduced last year at Millhaven, where a white mobile home stands inside the security fences. There is a small fenced yard for children, with swings and a teeter-totter. The authorities provide food and other necessities. The purpose of the programme, an official explains, is ‘to keep the family together, to maintain some continuity so the inmate’s got something to go back to. It’s not to dangle a carrot for good behaviour. It’s not even to cut down on homosexuality in the institution – those are side effects.’ A similar programme was started in Attica in New York State three years ago. ‘It’s early to make any sweeping statements,’ says the official, ‘but the people there the recividism among the men who got visits is way, way down.’

At Kingston, there is no programme of conjugal visits. Inmate’s contact with family and friends consists of letters and supervised visits. The inmate above asked to be photographed so that his girlfriend could have his picture.

WITH Waxed Moustached, Medal Ribbons, and Military Bearing, Tom Rathwell, the supervising keeper (or head guard) at Kingston, appears as anachronistic as the penitentiary itself. In fact, he is respected – even liked – by virtually all the inmates. ‘I don’t know who they’ll get when he goes on retirement,’ says a bank robber. ‘I mean, he’s a man you can trust. I remember one time we had a sit-down strike in the gym. The guys wanted to kill the warden – they had iron bars and they were ugly. Then, after a day-and-a-half, the door opened – boom! – and in walked Tom Rathwell, right in among us. He went around to all the ringleaders and wagged a finger under their noses – ‘This is your doing, don’t think I don’t know that.’ He made them feel like kids. After that, we all caved in.’

A veteran of the Second World War, Rathwell, sixty-one, joined the penitentiary service in 1947. Except for a few months at Millhaven, he has spent his entire career at Kingston. ‘Things were much tougher before ‘71,’ he says. ‘Everything was very military. Men marched everywhere in lines, they weren’t allowed to dress sloppily, they had to be very polite with the guards. If they called you by your first name, you were supposed to charge them. It didn’t help. You can’t treat people like that. I try to be straight with them. If they ask about their parole, or what their chances are of a move, and I don’t think they have a hope, I tell them. If you say, ‘That’s up to the classification officers,’ it just makes them mad.’

A Kingston inmate handed a note to the photographer and asked that it be given to the writer. The note reads, ‘While speaking with Mr. Rathwell the other day he made a comment which I thought worth passing on to you. He seldom uses bad language, but this is what he said: ‘They told me when I started here thirty-four years ago to treat all prisoners alike. It was bullshit then and it’s bullshit now.’

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Expanding the Carceral State
While the federal government was no more willing to step into state prisons on behalf of Muslim prisoners than it was in Albany, Georgia, on behalf of nonviolent protestors, the activism of the Muslim Brotherhood continued to receive attention from the state capital in Albany, New York. The writ-writing campaigns of prisoners had helped prompt a national response and the attention of the courts, but it also caused an arm of the state to reach deep into incarcerated communities. Wardens and state corrections officers authorized prison surveillance and, in some cases, even dedicated a staff member to internal supervision of the Nation of Islam. This surveillance was meant not only to absorb and report but also to disrupt and subvert. It also provided the raw material for state knowledge production that could quell prison activism. Prison officials soon emerged as arbiters of religious orthodoxy, determining who and what constituted legitimate Muslim practice.

As they looked to Muslim religious practices such as eating, prayer, and use of Arabic for markers of identity and political agitation, prisoners turned to informal strategies of daily resistance to combat state intrusions. Through its intervention, the state also assigned political meaning to religious practice, further politicizing incarceration and the practice of Islam within prison walls. State surveillance began with prison officers, who had the most daily contact with prisoners. One institution devoted an officer to keeping a list of all active members, searching their cells, and confiscating any literature relating to the Nation of Islam. Seizing materials slowed the spread of conversions and were a source for state intelligence. An area of concern was prisoners’ use of Arabic. The language not only served a cultural and religious function but also flummoxed prison security. For example, Bratcher gave specific instructions in his letter to Malcolm X: his mother would write him of the minister’s reply in red

ink with “three lines of Al-Fatihab” (referring to Al-Fatiha, the first surah in the Qur’an). One state report noted that it “would seem doubtful if the majority of the prisoners can rea[d] and write Arabic but if notes are picked up that seem to contain no meaning maybe they would bear investigating.” Several months later, six pages of Arabic to English and English to Arabic translation were confiscated. 

Another surveillance strategy that relied heavily on prison officers was the scrutiny of Muslim eating habits. The refusal to eat pork in prisons recalls Malcolm X’s own imprisonment in the late 1940s when he and other prisoners protested its prevalence in prison diets. At Attica Prison, Bratcher wrote to Warden Walter Wilkins asking for permission to carry food from the mess hall to his cell so he and other Muslim prisoners could eat after sundown during Ramadan. One prisoner was even charged with wasting state food for throwing away his bacon and refusing to eat it. Daily political acts such as throwing away bacon even escalated to more formal strikes. In Milan, Michigan, where Elijah Muhammad had once been incarcerated for draft resistance, prisoners took part in a three day hunger strike against pork, which eventually resulted in Muslim-prepared food and a separate dining section. 

These actions were challenged by prison officials who quickly seized on dietary restrictions as a way to monitor and challenge the legitimacy of a prisoner’s religious beliefs. “In order to check the authenticity of the Muslims,” Woodward’s memo noted, “each officer has been required to submit to the principal keeper’s office a report on whether or not the particular prisoner in question is eating pork. The members who are eating pork will be … included in next month’s report.” Another institution itemized prisoners’ eating when pork was served in the mess hall: “Of the above total [of 70], 30 prisoners either refused their ration or gave it to another prisoner, and additional 16 prisoners took their ration to their cells and only two were actually observed fasting.” By monitoring prisoners’ eating, writings, and literature, prison officers acted as foot soldiers in the state’s surveillance of the Nation of Islam. 

From this narrow base of day-to-day surveillance, reports on Muslims in prison also radiated outward to the state and federal levels. The success of the NOI’s organized prison litigation continued to trouble prison officials. The first to present on the NOI at the ACA’s annual conference was the noted penologist Donald Clemmer, who authored his foundational study The Prison Community in 1940. By 1963, topics such as “The Black Muslims and Religious Freedom in Prison” and “The Black Muslim in Prison: A Personality Study” surfaced at the conference. The academic communities of penology and criminology emerged as part of the state’s developing knowledge production about the NOI. 

The 1960s also marked a shift from rehabilitative strategies to psychological warfare and new technologies of violence, and Muslim prisoners were often the first subjected to these new experimental practices. As Alan Gómez notes, bibliotherapy was replaced with isolation, sensory deprivation, and brainwashing; Muslim prison litigation helped “propel this shift.” Edgar Schein, a professor of psychology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented a paper in 1961 to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons entitled “Man against Man: Brainwashing.” Bertra S. Brown of the National Institute of Mental Health responded by contacting prison administrators and suggesting that they “do things perhaps on your own—undertake a little experiment of what you can do with Muslims.” As Gómez persuasively argues, the ascension of Control Units, Special Housing Units, and Adjustment Centers, were all outgrowths of the experimental use of excessive solitary confinement by prison officials during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These punishments and techniques, he concluded, were “initially experimented with on Muslim inmates [but] later used en masse on political activists [and] became the model for the entire prison regime.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 90-93.

Photos are from Ann Arbor Times, September 6, 1966.

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“Alcatraz of Canada Groups Troublemakers Behind High Walls,” The Globe and Mail. September 11, 1962. Page 04.

By EDWARD CLIFFORD
Globe and Mail Reporter

Millbrook, Sept. 10 – They call Millbrook Reformatory the Alcatraz of Canada.

Behind the 20-foot brick wall are 150 prisoners living a regimented life that they leave only when they finish their terms or change their behauviour.

There have been successful or even near-successful escapes from Millbrook in its five years as a maximum security institution. Here are housed the troublemakers of the Ontario corrections system.

A visitor to Millbrook might be impressed by its efficiency, its cleanliness, even its meals. It doesn’t give the impression of tough, steel and stone Big House where defiant men are broken.

‘It doesn’t seem so tough for an ordinary law-abiding citizen,’ said Millbrook’s superintendent, J. M. Marsland, ‘but the prisoners here are essentially manipulators who all their lives have tried to adapt situations to their own advantage. Here, they can’t. This is the most frustrating experience of their lives.’

To Millbrook are sent men from other Ontario reformatories, men who have repeatedly caused trouble, instigated disturbances, or have gotten fellow prisoners into trouble.

Here also are sent drug addicts and sex deviants who are kept in groups so they will not spread their habits to younger and more impressionable inmates in other reformatories.

No maximum security prison in Canada or the United States is more modern than Millbrook, its superintendent says. Prisoners are escorted everywhere by guards. Cell and block doors are electrically controlled by other guards sitting in bulletproof glass booths.

They work together, have recreation and exercise periods together, but eat in their own cells. Because they spend much of their time alone, Millbrook prisoners have time to think about their lives and their crimes.

When a man reaches Millbrook, he spends two weeks in a reception cell during which time he sees only reformatory staff, doctors and psychologists. From then on, he gets privileges as he earns them by good behavior.

He can forfeit his privileges by loafing, failing to obey prison rules or acting up. For repeated infractions, a prisoner can earn a period of solitary confinement.

This is why criminals call Millbrook the Alcatraz of Canada, and this is why Millbrook produces some model inmates.

‘Of course, we’re not as interested in producing model inmates as we are in producing model citizens,’ Mr. Marsland emphasized.

Consequently, prisoners are encouraged to work in one of the shops at the reformatory: the laundry, tailor shop, or license-plate plant. There it is possible to learn skills that could lead to a good job when the inmate finishes his sentence.

A prisoner can also get psychological help  and, in the case of a drug addict, help in curing him of his addiction.

By demonstrating that his attitude has changed, a prisoner can earn a transfer to an institution where discipline and security are more relaxed.

Not everyone in Millbrook is able to accept the reformatory’s way of life. One prisoner collected the hems off blankets, wove them into a rope, and wound it around his waist in preparation for the day he could weight one end, toss it over the wall, and climb to freedom.

‘He wouldn’t have made it anyway,’ said Mr. Marsland. ‘The rope was discovered in a routine frisking prisoners undergo regularly.’

The only organized disturbance since Millbrook was established came shortly after Mr. Marsland arrived as superintendent three years ago.

‘They were testing me,’ he said. A group of prisoners refused to enter their cells to eat. The superintendent, an ex-Royal Air Force fighter and bomber pilot, told the men the strictest disciplinary measures would be taken if they did not go to their cells. They went.

Actually, Millbrook inmates have little cause for complaint. They know ahead of time that it’s tough and are prepared for it. They can’t object to the discipline, and there is no reason to complain about the food, accommodation or clothing.

One prisoner, however, has a decided aversion to life in the institution where all the inmates wear blue denim. Currently confined to the prison hospital, and likely to remain there until his sentence is finished, he lounges quietly in bed counting the days. His sickness: Blue denim allergy.

Caption: Millbrook prisoners line up to leave license-plate plant while guards watch (left). They are searched, then go to cells.

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“As the five men waited for the SaMarion case to reach trial in the summer of 1962, they planned a hunger strike protesting solitary confinement. The prisoners claimed that Bratcher’s segregation was “an excuse by the warden . . to make him seem that he was crazy concerning this trial that was coming up.” Writ writing had exacerbated fears among prison officials and became one of the most successful strategies for Muslim prisoners. The Nation of Islam successfully flooded the courts with writs across the country. Between 1961 and 1978, sixty-six reported federal court decisions were made on suits fled by prisoners affiliated with the Nation of Islam. In California the number of habeas corpus petitions rose from a mere 814 in 1957 to nearly five thousand by 1965. At San Quentin in 1965, prisoners were churning out almost three hundred petitions per month. As Judge Brennan noted at one trial, these were not “cases where uneducated, inexperienced and helpless plaintiffs are involved … these applications are part of a movement.” Prison litigation became the “peaceful equivalent of a riot” by catalyzing public support and bringing national attention to the otherwise-hidden struggles of prisoners.

One of the largest structural challenges to prison organizing was physical isolation from the outside world. Activists relied on what Berger has called “a strategy of visibility” to make their struggles known. Testifying has its political roots in slavery and has been carried forward through the black feminist tradition. As Danielle McGuire points out in her work on the role of the struggle against sexual violence in the civil rights movement, “testimony must be seen as a form of direct action and radical protest.” Black prisoners saw the courts as political pulpits, a breach in the walls allowing them to take their claims before the world outside. As James Jacobs wrote, “it is as if the courts had become a battlefield where prisoners and prison administrators, led by their respective legal champions, engage in mortal combat.” Sostre later wrote that the “court is an arena. It is a battlefield—one of the best. We will use these same torture chambers, these same kangaroo courts, to expose them.”

Nowhere was this more evident than during Malcolm X’s testimony during the SaMarion trial. Bratcher realized that the state would be mobilizing witnesses to testify against the Nation of Islam’s standing in the Muslim world and wrote to the minister that the “‘Key’ witness I am depending on to ‘seal’ our victory is ‘You’ Minister Malcolm ‘X.’” This set the stage for a four-day showdown between Malcolm X and the state’s witness, the Columbia University professor Joseph Franz Schacht. While Malcolm X admitted openly in court that he had an eighth-grade education, no formal theological training, and could not speak Arabic, Schacht had a “masterly knowledge” of the language, and his book Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, which argued for the historical development and sociological implications of Islamic law, was considered a seminal text in the Western study of Islam. Yet Malcolm X weaved around the meritocratic probing of the state. When asked if he had a degree in theology, he noted that if “my understanding of the word ‘theological’ is correct, the study of God, the science that deals with religion and the study of God, I studied theology in that sense under the Honorable Elijah Muhammad about our God.” When pressed on the length of his education, he replied: “I am still studying.” When interrogated on whether or not he was ordained or had a written certificate that permitted him to proselytize, he reminded the court that “Jesus sent his disciples forth with no written certificate or anything but his approval.” Malcolm X’s

testimony was so convincing that when Schacht took the stand and listed his membership in the Royal Netherlands Academy, the Arabic Academy in Damascus, and an honorary degree in Law from University of Algiers, the judge responded: “I don’t think it is quite thoroughly clear at this time to qualify him as an expert.” 

While Henderson had, in effect, apologized for and excused his racism in the same remark, his open respect for Malcolm X’s opinion shifted the tenor of the case. As Griffin recalled, Henderson was “impressed by Malcolm and his testimony … [and] respected Malcolm for his clear statements and responses.” Bresnihan, likely attempting to curry favor with the judge, then began adopting the phrase the “American Black Man” in his questioning. Malcolm X’s use of the courtroom as a political stage reveals the importance of testimony as a form of nonviolent resistance. His testimony lasted three days, and was over 20 percent of the two-week trial transcript, successfully compelling the judge to rule that the Nation of Islam was a religious organization. But more importantly, Malcolm X’s  political views took center stage and fundamentally altered the rhetoric and discourse of the case.

The case at Attica Prison also underscores the important role that the jailhouse lawyer played in organizing legal challenges from prison. Knowing that most prisoners were not qualified to draw up their own legal challenges, prisons such as Attica maintained rules prohibiting legal assistance. For example, “rule 21” at Attica stated: “Prisoners are prohibited except upon approval of the warden to assist other prisoners in preparation of legal papers.” This strategy was reproduced nationally as a means of combatting prison litigation efforts. In Texas, administrators employed a similar strategy, forbidding writ writers from possessing the legal materials of a fellow prisoner. In California this was known as Rule D-2602. Even if a prisoner wanted to use another’s paperwork as a template, officials concluded that any legal material in a cell not pertaining to that prisoner was evidence of prison lawyering. Just as grandfather clauses and poll taxes worked as state mechanisms to disfranchise southern black voters, rules governing legal access and jailhouse lawyering sought to curb legal literacy and prisoners’ access to the judicial system. Thus, when Sostre wrote to Walker, he urged him to copy the writ into his notebook, then flush it down the toilet, but not to “let this lay around. This is dynamite.” He then listed the “most essential weapons in fighting Shaitan” (Arabic transliteration of “the devil”): legal paper, an ink eraser, one dollar of postage stamps, a loose-leaf binder, and a ball-point pen.

Trough cases such as Pierce v. LaVallee, SaMarion v. McGinnis, and later, Cooper v. Pate, the NOI brought about judicial oversight such that, by 1974, the Supreme Court declared that no longer was an “iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.” Yet, while the Supreme Court strictly forbade any “direct or indirect interference by prisons or state authorities” in prisoners’ access to the courts, prisons obstructed court access through measures such as rule 21. They also limited legal advice, intimidated writ writers, and disrupted the legal process through solitary confinement.

Despite these attempts, Muslim prisoners were more organized than the often uncoordinated strategies of local prison officials and state policy makers. In one example in California, San Quentin Prison officials set up a small office where three prisoners transcribed writs onto standardized forms and processed them on a duplicating machine. Meanwhile, the California Department of Corrections attempted to clamp down on writ writers by prohibiting access to law literature and court decisions. 

But Sostre’s letter to Walker in solitary confinement also revealed another strategy pointing toward the concurrent tactics of prison organizing and the broader black freedom struggle. Prisoners appropriated the principal mechanism of prison repression—solitary confinement—as a tool of organized protest. Recognizing that most of Attica Prison’s Muslims were already in solitary confinement, Sostre urged Walker to not be sent back to general population. According to Sostre, they “made a pact not to go down until the religious persecution of the Muslims cease[s].” If Walker was sent back, he was told to threaten to bring contraband literature out of his cell and be sent back to solitary. They reasoned that each time the warden “snatch[ed] an aggressive Muslim out of population, he would send one down from the box and send another one up from population. In other words, he kept manipulating the brothers like monkeys on a string.” Yet Sostre astutely noted that when “the box ceases to work, the entire disciplinary and security system breaks down.” The take-over of solitary confinement was an example of prisoners creatively adapting the methods of prison control as resistance. NOI members filled solitary confinement until the box no longer was an effective form of punishment. Wardens were then faced with the decision of creating hotbeds of activism in segregation or undermining the arbitrary rules they had worked so hard to justify and enforce. 

The prisoners’ strategy of filling solitary confinement mirrored, and in fact predated, the developing civil rights strategy of “Jail, no bail” in the South. …

The prisoners’ strategy of taking over solitary can be traced back to Clinton Prison when the men were reported by the prison officer as discussing the tactics (over a year before the Friendship Nine employed this strategy). While civil rights organizers in the South and prisoners at Attica appropriated forms of state control, Chief Pritchett in Albany was able to mobilize a larger network of police and jails just as wardens at Clinton and Attica Prisons were able to transfer prisoners to other state prisons when their much smaller segregation units became filled with politicized prisoners. Both movements also attempted to garner national attention and press for federal intervention. As Len Holt

of the Congress of Racial Equality explained, “if we go to jail by the hundreds and thousands, the hearts of those who would maintain the old order will be inundated with the guilt necessary to bring about change.” For prisoners at Attica, solitary confinement and the loss of good time were crucial to their claims in state and federal courts. As Sostre wrote: “We have taken over the box and he is anxious to get us out of the box, especially with the big trial coming soon. So don’t let him clean up, for we are living proof of the religious oppression complained of in our writs.” Filling solitary confinement not only

undermined prison security but also built a case for trial and dramatized prisoners’ struggles before the courts and the nation.

But in both cases, appropriation of state repression had unintended consequences. As Berger argues, “mass arrests of political activists provided a dry run for mass incarceration, especially when joined with the economic transformations wrought by mechanization and migration. The civil rights movement gave states an early taste of what it would mean to arrest, prosecute, and imprison large groups of people.” In the case of Muslims at Attica Prison, it coincided with intensified surveillance and monthly reports on the group. Despite their similarities, the “Jail, no bail” strategy has its place in the annals of civil rights history as a heroic confrontation with southern Jim Crow through nonviolent direct action; meanwhile, the take-over of solitary confinement by Muslims at Attica Prison has gone unremarked. At best, the Nation of Islam has been depicted as a reluctant political participant, pulled toward the struggle by Malcolm X. At worst, it is portrayed as an apolitical religious sect that was marginal, or even antithetical, to such movements. Such disparate historical treatments raise important questions about what are seen as legitimate politics, legible activists, and visible sites of resistance in histories of the black freedom movement.”

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 84-90 

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“The transfer to Attica in 1960 was an explicit attempt at curbing Muslim activism in New York prisons and represented the first of a variety of methods of prison discipline by the state. The practice of transferring prisoners to “break up gangs, separate associates in crime, and prevent disorder” was decades old. Sostre later referred to it as “bus therapy.” It was not unique to New York, however. Chase notes that the Texas Department of Correction distributed Muslims throughout state prisons to limit their influence in any one location. These institutional transfers (referred to as “drafts”) and solitary confinement represented the two largest threats to the stability of Muslim communities in prison. The group was persistently under threat due to this constantly fluctuating base. Short sentences often meant the release of members, and several assistants were appointed for each officer position to assure continuity and sustainability. These multiple appointments were primarily meant to combat the “further reduction of our ranks by the implacable enemy through persecutions (solitary confinement).”

Solitary confinement—sometimes referred to as “the box” or “segregation”—was the prison’s primary tool of security and discipline. The practice of solitary confinement was honed over a century earlier at New York’s Auburn Prison, with a trademark system of strict discipline, labor for prison profit, and solitude. This drew on nineteenth-century penal thought based on the belief that collective work and isolated living would reform prisoners. By the 1960s, at Attica Prison, solitary confinement had shed all pretenses of rehabilitation and was used strictly as a disciplinary measure. The section consisted of fifty individual cells on the third floor of the reception building with each single cell containing only a bed, toilet, wash basin with running water, and a light. When assigned to segregation, prisoners often were required to stay for days or weeks in “keep-lock” or a strip cell before moving to the gallery. “Keep-lock” was a single solitary cell with doors that “do not open up any more.” The strip cell was bare, with only a bucket and blanket. As SaMarion testified, prisoners “do an initial twenty days on a concrete floor with only a pair of winter underwear, pair of socks, no sanitary facilities whatever. The only thing you

use for calls of nature is a bucket, a defecation bucket.” Rations in keep-lock were reduced to half of normal mess-hall food: water and two slices of bread. Magette described keeplock at Clinton Prison as even more medieval. The “Dark Cell” was completely empty, without even a blanket. He was put there naked with a half a cup of water and one slice of bread three times a day. 

But solitary confinement was used by prison officials as more than a physical deterrent. It was coupled with the loss of good time as a way to isolate prisoners while simultaneously extending their sentences. Good time, sometimes referred to as good behavior (and now called “earned time”), was purportedly meant to reward well-behaved prisoners with a shortened sentence through their good conduct. However, like solitary confinement, it was used as a punitive measure. For example, in the first year the men spent at Attica Prison, thirty-three prisoners were sent to solitary confinement and four hundred cases of discipline led to 8,525 total days of good time lost over a nine-month period.

The loss of good time and the use of solitary confinement also punished prisoners in two directions at once. First, prisoners lost an initial amount of time for the disciplinary matter. For instance, SaMarion lost sixty days for joining a hunger strike in protest of the solitary confinement of another Muslim prisoner. Te second loss of time occurred during solitary confinement, as each day in solitary earned three lost days. Finally, regardless of prisoners’ behavior in solitary confinement, good time could not begin to be reaccumulated until a prisoner had been readmitted to the prison’s general population. These good-time practices illustrate the vast discretionary powers wielded by prison officials. As SaMarion bleakly noted at trial, “it is taken at will, you have it one minute,
then you don’t have it.”

A year after the four men had been transferred from Clinton Prison, Attica Prison officials reported that a sit-down strike was being planned in protest of Sostre’s solitary confinement. They responded by putting the prisoners in keep-lock with a loss of ninety days of good time. The group was then divided and transferred to different blocks with the hope that “after a thirty-day cooling-off period and the dispersion of the members of this click[,] activity will abate.” This incident reveals the ongoing struggle between strategies employed by prison officials to suppress Muslim activism and prisoners’ resistance to such practices. The state used transfers and the combination of solitary confinement and goodtime practices to slow the spread of Islam in New York prisons. But prisoners continued to bring their plight before the courts, ending the unspoken “hands-off” policy that had previously sheltered prisons from oversight by the judicial branch.” 

– Garrett Felber, ““Shades of Mississippi”: The Nation of Islam’s Prison Organizing, the Carceral State, and the Black Freedom Struggle.” The Journal of American History, June 2018. pp. 83-84

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