Kevin “Rashid” Johnson is a prisoner-journalist, political organizer, and advocate, who the Virginia, Oregon, and Texas prison authorities would very much like to silence, permanently. If that sounds ominous, it’s because it is.
For several years now, Rashid has worked as the main public organizer of the New Afrikan Black Panther Party, a small Marxist-Leninist group most of whose members are to be found behind bars. He has also lent his talents to various progressive political movements as an artist, and is a prolific writer on a variety of subjects ranging from Black nationalism to economics to dialectical materialist philosophy. But if anything has provoked the powers that be, it is Rashid’s documenting of abuse behind bars, of beatings and starvation and medical neglect and the mundane cruelty that plays out between captor and captive every day in jails and prisons across America.
From 1995 to 2012, Rashid was held in various degrees of solitary confinement in Virginia, at Wallens Ridge and Red Onion State Prisons. Through clandestine correspondence with other prisoners, he worked to educate his peers while also reaching out to activists on the outside. Many of the notes he passed back and forth with others during this time would form the basis of the book Defying the Tomb, published in 2010.
In 2011, Rashid wrote a series of articles about a new isolation unit being opened at Red Onion, and about ongoing guard abuse that included a “pain-compliance technique” that involves bending prisoners backwards, to the point that they would sometimes break. At the same time, he became well known as the artist who drew the drawing that would serve as an unofficial logo for the historic California hunger strikes that year. When guards retaliated by beating Rashid, dislocating his shoulder and tearing his dreadlocks out from his scalp, outside supporters attempted to mobilize to protect him, while calling attention to the abuses he had been documenting for years. In an attempt to pre-empt an embarrassing situation, the Virginia Department of Corrections had Rashid first transferred to Wallens Ridge – where he was openly told by guards that they intended to kill him – and then, in mid-February 2012, he was moved once again; his new destination: Oregon.
Rashid was moved under the auspices of the Interstate Compact Agreement, an accord between different states that allows them to transfer prisoners to one another. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2006 publication Interstate Transfer of Prison Inmates in the United States, this is generally done to alleviate overcrowding, but also to “reduce the risk [prisoners] pose to the safety and security of their facility operations,” to provide “post-incident or disturbance cool-down,” and “to manage cases of conflict between staff and inmates.” (12, 15) Some states make greater use of the ICA, for instance, in 2005 California had over 500 prisoners being held out-of-state. That same year, at the other extreme, Virginia had only 3 prisoners being held out-of-state. (13)
In Oregon, Rashid was released from solitary for the first time in 17 years. The hope was perhaps that this would induce him to be silent, to go along with Oregon’s passing its prisons off as liberal exceptions to the repressive American norm. It did not take long, however, before it became clear that this would not happen, as Rashid began “stirring up trouble” by violating the unwritten rules about different “races” of prisoners not mixing, engaging outright white supremacists in conversation and attempting to win them over to the view that they had more in common with prisoners from the oppressed nations than with their jailers.
Rashid was on an inevitable collision course with the Oregon Department of Corrections, just as he had been in Virginia. In late 2012 he was transferred from the “liberal” Oregon State Penitentiary to the beaver state’s Intensive Management Unit, at the Snake River Correctional Institution.
Located on the Idaho border, the Snake River IMU is a gradated isolation unit, where prisoners are held in conditions ranging from strict isolation, to being able to spend some time with one another in common areas, all depending on their compliance with the prison rules and their “progress” as judged by prison psychiatrists and case officers. As such, each prisoner lives in conditions micromanaged by guards, administrators, and mental health professionals, all with the goal of turning them into someone they are not. Such coercive control constitutes an assault on the psychological integrity of inmates, all in an attempt to reframe solitary confinement in therapeutic terms, as acknowledged by prison officials.
According to Liz Craig of Oregon DOC, in a conversation with this author in February about Rashid’s case, the IMU is a response to the fact that “there’s a lot of discussion in Oregon and nationally about the use of isolation or solitary or whatever one wants to call it.” Given that most of those who end up in the IMU are what Craig referred to as “frequent fliers”, the idea behind the IMU was to use “different depths of programming,” “incentivizing to improve behavior”. In other words, behavior modification. (The verdict on this kinder, gentler, solitary confinement was recently rendered by those prisoners at Snake River who opted to go on hunger strike in conjunction with the better known, ongoing, California hunger strikes this summer.)
Rashid’s time in Snake River was anything but uneventful. On February 2 he was the victim of drugging by another prisoner, who apparently thought this would be a harmless “prank” to play. The result was a medical crisis that was met with derision, ridicule, and neglect from prison authorities. It was only the mobilization of outside pressure that finally forced Snake River to provide some assistance to a man in serious distress and at risk of dying – for in his altered state, Rashid had swallowed pieces of a broken razor blade, and was subsequently terrified to eat lest food cause the blade to cut him internally. It was nineteen days before he agreed to resume eating, during which time he had to fight to remain under medical observation, despite the fact that he was suffering constant severe abdominal and kidney pains, and was discharging blood in his urine daily. To add insult to injury, the prison administrators took this as an opportunity to classify the entire ordeal as a disciplinary violation, returning Rashid to the conditions of most restrictive isolation, even denying him access to his books or mail from supporters.
Throughout this period, Rashid continued to write, penning multiple reports on conditions at Snake River, the attempted suicides he learned of, and the Orwellian conditions prisoners are subject to in the behavior modification unit. At the same time, with the help of a Portland lawyer who had become involved during the February health crisis, he prepared to file a lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Corrections.
As a result of this ongoing activism, in June, Rashid was once again transferred. Oregon had clearly had enough. If the “liberal” carrot had not worked, time to resort to the “redneck” stick. Rashid’s new destination: Texas.
Back to Solitary
Rashid arrived in Huntsville, Texas on June 14. In no time at all he found himself in an altercation with guards who insisted on shaving off his dreadlocks. While they managed to get their way, Rashid’s physical resistance was used as an excuse to return him to solitary, this time in the Estelle Unit, where the physical abuse continued.
“Soon as I got here I’m met by another goon squad, then cuffed behind and leg shackled after a strip search. They then took me into an office where the Assistant Warden Wayne Brewer, Major David Forrest and Captain James A. McKee were. When I properly asked Brewer who he was, he barked “shut up motherfucker. I’m doing the talking!” I was then immediately attacked by Forrest and McKee who repeatedly choked and hit me in the face and head, while Brewer went into a tirade of curses and threats to “break” me, “kill” me, etc. When I could breathe I just talked shit back. When they got tired, I was kicked out of the office and taken to a cell by the goon squad, with an injured throat and swollen left jaw. All requests for medical care have been ignored.”
As a result of this beating, Rashid was brought up on disciplinary charges; despite the fact that he indicated that he wished to attend this hearing, he was not allowed to do so. Furthermore, McKee presided as the hearings officer, and so somewhat predictably the guard who had been involved in the altercation found Rashid guilty. McKee similarly presided over Rashid’s security housing committee hearing to determine whether he would remain in solitary. At the next security housing committee hearing it was Forrest who followed suit. (In case it needs to be added, both men ruled that Rashid should remain in solitary.)
Not surprisingly in a situation where guards act with such impunity, the abuse has continued:
“I’ve been subjected to frequent strip and cell searches every 30 minutes to 2 hours every day, around-the-clock, even during sleeping hours. This began as soon as I was assigned to E2U, following the office assault.”
Waking prisoners multiple times every night is a routine method of bringing about sleep deprivation – a tried and tested form of torture, utilized in prisons around the world in an attempt to break the will of those who resist. Indeed, according to one anti-torture expert, “It is such a standard form of torture that basically everybody has used it at one time or another.”
As explained on the website of The Justice Campaign:
“Sleep deprivation is used by torturers because it makes a person more suggestible, reduces psychological resistance and it reduces the body’s capacity to resist pain. Sleep deprivation is a very effective torture technique. The Committee against Torture (CAT) has noted that sleep deprivation used for prolonged periods constitutes a breach of the [United Nations Convention Against Torture], and is primarily used to break down the will of the detainee. Sleep deprivation can cause impaired memory and cognitive functioning, decreased short term memory, speech impairment, hallucinations, psychosis, lowered immunity, headaches, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stress, anxiety and depression.”
The Estelle Unit: Rape, Beatings and Death
According to Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2010, inmates in the Estelle Unit suffer from the highest rate of sexual abuse in the United States, with most such violence involving guards raping prisoners. This sad statistic belies a culture of cruelty and abuse, concentrating tendencies that exist throughout the prison system. But it is not only rape, but various forms of neglect and non-sexual physical abuse too, that run rampant at Estelle.
Take the case of Larry Louis Cox: in 2007, Cox died from injuries sustained after a confrontation with guards during a cell extraction. Although his hands were cuffed behind his back at the time, he was thrown to the ground, his head hitting his metal bunk and fracturing his spine. Due to the severity of this injury he was unable to stand to his feet – as a result, prison medical staff reported him as “refusing” treatment. On January 26 – after lying on the ground in agony for two days – Cox was finally transferred to an outside hospital, where he died ten days later. A medical examiner would find that Cox’s death constituted homicide by “medical neglect complicating blunt force trauma,” and yet despite recommendations to the contrary from the Office of the Inspector General, no charges were laid.
The violence that led to Cox’s death is not out of the ordinary at Estelle, and it is just a matter of luck that more prisoners have not died. As Rashid has written since his transfer:
“Here in E2U multitudes of prisoners attest to being victims of beatings by guards. Although there are surveillance cameras throughout the unit, guards typically take prisoners into “blind spots” like offices, closets, elevators, etc. where cameras are absent and beat them. During cell extractions they simply turn off or don’t train the audio-video cameras on the prisoner, while kicks and punches are thrown and his head is slammed onto the concrete floor or steel fixtures in the cells, and guards use their bodies to block the cameras.”
Larry Cox died precisely under such circumstances, during a cell extraction, his head slammed into his metal bed fixture. What was exceptional in his case was simply that the incident came to be acknowledged as having happened, something that would never have occurred had he not succumbed to his injuries – and still, no criminal charges were ever filed against the guards or medical staff.
Since his arrival at Estelle less than two months ago, Rashid has found himself in exactly the same situation as led to Cox’s spine being broken, a beating under the pretext of a cell extraction.
Shortly after his transfer into solitary, Rashid asked for the rationale behind the constant cell checks which were clearly intended to induce sleep deprivation:
“Their response was to tell me they were frequently searching me “because we can”, and used my questioning them as an excuse to attempt to escalate the situation to where force would be justified. [Sergeant Kyle] Nash summoned lieutenant Patrick Eady to the cell who stated outright that they were going to “do this the hard way”, and I’m “not going to like it.” He told the guards to “go suit up”, i.e put on riot armor, and that he wanted them to take me into the back of the cell and “beat on” me. I’d never refused to submit to the search, only questioned it, so when they returned in riot armor, I went through the strip search, was handcuffed behind and brought out of the cell. At that point, I narrated all that had occurred and Eady’s stated intentions for an audio-video camera that was present and presumably recording. I also stated my need to see medical staff for injuries to my face and throat resulting from the assault on me in the office. Following the search, I was taken inside the cell – out of view of the camera – laid on the floor in back of the cell and hit and kicked in the face and head, which I narrated for the camera to pick up”.
Once again, a handcuffed prisoner was beaten, with the guards subsequently claiming that it was because he had refused to leave his cell.
Rashid has also witnessed, and reported on, guards attacking other prisoners in a similar manner. For instance, the severe beating of prisoner Joe Laws by guards on June 28:
“Following a strip search Laws was brought out and stood against the wall outside the cell while the cell search was enacted. [Jalisa R.Jackson] “alerted” [Brett] Wuellner the video camera was not working.
The riot armored guards then took Laws into the back of the cell and laid him face down on the floor, whereupon they acted to remove the handcuffs and back out of the cell in an orderly retreat. At that point Wuellner announced loudly that should Laws try to rise from the floor force would be used. Laws never tried to get up. Wuellner told the guards to “get him” then announced with feigned excitement that Laws tried to rise, was “resisting”, etc. On Wuellner’s cue the guards rushed back into the cell and began beating and kicking Laws in the head and face. Smith was doing so with steel-toed boots.
The entire wing of prisoners witnessed the attack by sight and/or sound, and many began in outrage to kick their cell doors and yell at the guards in protest. Laws was beaten at length, following which the guards then retreated from the cell and hastily shut the door.
Wuellner then pretended to try and take photographs of Laws on a digital camera as TDCJ policy requires whenever force is used on a prisoner. However he quickly announced the battery was dead so the required still photos couldn’t be taken. Laws was left in the cell bleeding profusely from the head and face.”
Rashid is not the only Estelle prisoner to have documented such beatings. Further evidence of a pattern of guard-on-prisoner violence can be found in the prisoner newsletter Under Lock and Key, produced by the outside group MIM(Prisons). In a letter published in the March edition of this newsletter, a prisoner recounts how,
“On December 28, 2012 at approximately 8pm, I and many other prisoners housed here at Estelle Unit High Security witnessed a heinous act of violence. Four TDCJ employees viciously beat a mentally ill Black prisoner whose hands were cuffed behind his back.”
As in the case of Rashid’s beating upon his arrival at Huntsville, disciplinary hearings initiated against prisoners have been presided over by guards who have either participated in the violence, or who have worked to cover it up. As recounted in Under Lock and Key, in regards to the December 28 beating:
“Some prisoners wrote grievances, and some wrote their family members to complain about the inhumane and barbaric behavior of the officers. In the months and weeks that followed I have witnessed one of the most devious and calculated programs of retaliation that I have ever seen anywhere.
Lieutenant Deward Demoss who works on this High Security Unit has undertaken the task of targeting prisoners who spoke out against the beating. He has instructed the officers under his supervision to write fabricated and bogus disciplinary reports on specifically “pre-chosen” prisoners. Then Lieutenant Demoss goes further by violating prisoners’ due process rights by faking investigation and hearing entries on paper work. The coup de grace is when Lt. Deward Demoss actually runs court on the prisoner who has been “set up” by this modern day Agent of Repression!”
In a recent article, Rashid names this same Lieutenant Demoss as ordering prisoners be denied their meals as punishment for egregious crimes such as talking back to him. Indeed, when looking into documented cases of abuse at Estelle, one is struck by the fact that the same names are mentioned in different allegations from different sources. For instance, David Forrest, the major named by Rashid in relation to the June 14 assault, has also been named in another prisoner’s account of a violent cell extraction similar to what Rashid and Cox received:
“Two days ago I watched a white male sergeant named Curtis Jordan pull a Mexican male out of his cell violently and slam his head against a wall, and continue to smash his head against the wall and he looked up at my cell where I was watching and said “Tell that, Bitch!” I wrote a detailed affidavit to Senior Warden Cody Ginsel of Estelle Unit requesting that he review the video. This was an unprovoked use of force! Believe it or not, major David M. Forrest ordered the brutality against this innocent Mexican prisoner, who has some mental health issues. These racists target the weak, elderly, and mentally ill prisoners who can’t fight back.”
The same contempt for their captives, the same disregard for the wellbeing of those in a position of vulnerability, runs through all these stories. The details vary, but the similarities and patterns are glaring nonetheless. If long term solitary confinement constitutes a form a “clean” torture, meant to break prisoners without leaving any physical marks, places like the Estelle Unit revel in revealing the underlying imperative of violence, making visible what elsewhere the prison system works so hard to conceal.
As long as prisons exist, they will continue to exemplify many of the worst aspects of “the rest of society.” While Estelle may be a record breaker in terms of rapes and beatings, the rot one finds there can be found in dungeons across America.
Places like Estelle exist because they are a logical and inevitable outcome of a society where systemic violence (poverty, racism, colonialism) remains unchecked, and where social control is maintained through both broad-spectrum pre-emptive repression (i.e. the drug war) as well as more selective targeted attacks (i.e. to neutralize “troublemakers”). It is not surprising that the same violence that prisons maintain in society, can also be found in distilled form on the other side of the bars. As Chad Landrum, a revolutionary prisoner in California, has noted, “The prison system is a concentrated expression – a microcosm – of the class, racial, and gender contradictions, symptomatic of capitalist society…”
If places like Estelle “have to” exist in a society like ours, that sorry fact provides a strong argument that we “have to” oppose not only prisons, but also the social system that depends on them. As a communist and a prison activist, Rashid is involved in this struggle. He is deeply committed to making the world a better place, and his political activism is firmly rooted in solidarity with and love for oppressed people everywhere. It is his tireless – and dangerous – work exposing prison abuses and speaking up on behalf of other prisoners that has made him a target from one end of the country to the other.
Both repressive approaches – the indiscriminate and extensive cruelty and the targeted attempt to break a “troublemaker” – are at play here. As such, there is a real risk that Rashid has been sent to Estelle in order to be silenced once and for all. If the prison administrators feel they can get away with it, they will make sure this happens.
In a recent letter to a supporter, Rashid alluded to this, writing that he fears ending up either dead or seriously hurt.
As he puts it, “This is not a game.”
What Can We Do?
Kevin “Rashid” Johnson is in need of protection. We need to make it clear to the Texas prison officials that we have heard his pleas for help, and that we are responding. Write, phone and fax:
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Correctional Institutions Division
William Stephens, Deputy Director
Prison and Jail Operations
861 B IH 45 North
Huntsville, TX 77320
Phone: (936) 437-2170
Let them know that:
- You are concerned about the safety of Kevin Johnson (TDCJ # 01859887), that he has been assaulted at least twice, and remains vulnerable to the guards involved, specifically Major David Forrest and Captain James A. McKee.
- He be removed from the Estelle Unit, and removed from solitary confinement (“segregation”).
- An investigation be opened into the multiple reports of guard-on-prisoner violence and abuse at the Estelle Unit.
Remind them that:
- Government officials with personal knowledge of threats to the life and/or well-being of a prisoner, either by another prisoner or an officer, are legally bound to protect said prisoner.
At the same time, the Virginia Department of Corrections remains responsible for Rashid’s wellbeing. Rashid is a Virginia prisoner, and his exile to Texas and Oregon before it are clearly the result of VDOC’s ongoing abuse of prisoners, and the role Rashid has played in bringing it to light. Indeed, as mentioned previously, Virginia only sends a very small number of prisoners out of state, so Rashid has clearly been targeted in a very personal way.
Contact the Virginia Interstate Compact Coordinator and inform them that Kevin Johnson has been physically abused at the Estelle Unit, and demand that he be transferred somewhere else, and out of solitary confinement. Let them know that you are very concerned about his wellbeing:
Virginia Interstate Compact Coordinator Terry Glenn
Please send copies of all protest emails, or reports on your phone calls, to firstname.lastname@example.org
 Roma Khanna, “Injured Inmate Spent Two Days on Cell Floor,” Houston Chronicle Jan. 23, 2008.